What do you do before a show?
Most improvisers chat and have a beer or two. But some teams have specific rituals that lead up to a performance. Turns out, those habits can put us in the proper mindset to succeed.
When you make something a habit, it moves from the conscious part of your brain (the pre-frontal cortex), to a less conscious part (the basil ganglia).
That less conscious part regulates stuff like breathing and swallowing. It’s stuff you do without thinking. Whether that’s smoking a cigarette after a meal or running five miles every morning or driving to work, the habit requires little thought. You’ve drilled it so many times, you don’t think.
Ever wonder why you keep making the same kind of mistakes on stage? They’ve become a habit. To reverse that, you have to make the unconscious act conscious, change it, then make it a habit.
This article from “Psychology Today” talks more about how your brain acts when you make something a habit. It also makes a compelling argument that our pre-show rituals can set us up to perform better on stage.
With Whiskey Rebellion, we huddled before every show and one person was designated the “Creedmaster.” We’d close our eyes and listen to the Creedmaster as he spoke whatever words of encouragement or love or support or inspiration he had. When the creed was finished, we’d be ready to play – unified in spirit.
I can also think of a particularly bad show one of my teams had at an improv festival. Usually, a festival atmosphere heightens any team rituals you have. The environment and stage are unfamiliar, so you cling more tightly to your friends. But before one festival performance, we were backstage in some sort of carpentry workshop. No matter how much I tried to get us to focus on one another, my friends were more concerned with doing bits with screwdrivers or hammers or saws. We weren’t remotely close to our normal pre-show habits. And the show was abysmal. Maybe it’s too much to blame a bad show on scatterbrained pre-show hijinks, but I don’t think it’s that far-fetched.
If you’re lucky enough to catch a TJ & Dave show at iO Chicago, pay attention to what those guys do before a show. TJ always stretches in the hallway. Then Dave arrives. They say something to each other and smile. They take the stage to one of two songs (this or this). They hit the stage before the song ends and they wait patiently for the song to finish. TJ shields the light from his eyes and does a sweep of the audience, looking and smiling at the sell-out crowd. They don’t bother getting a suggestion. There’s a brief intro and then they say, “Trust us, this is all made up.” The lights go down, and when they come up, they just look at each other, looking for a clue to start the show. So it begins. Week in, week out.
Because that show usually sells out, I haven’t seen it in a while, but when I do catch it, I notice those pre-show habits haven’t changed in years. They are consistently one of the best shows available in Chicago.
This is not to say that getting your team to chant a thing or meditate or set a cat on fire each week will suddenly make you great. But having team rituals and individual pre-show habits are things you can do without thinking. That frees up the “thinking” part of your brain to play.
In time, you may get so good at improvising that your “habit” becomes excellent scenework. Because those really good improvisers never really look like they’re trying, do they? They’re not. Habits take care of themselves.