5 things I learned by taking a year off between improv shows

Nearly a year ago, the iO Theater killed off my team and didn’t reassign me.  Although I love improv with every molecule of my man-suit, I had no team to fall back on.  So began my 351-day improv exile.

During my time off the stage, I continued coaching an independent team.  And last weekend, the lovely KC Redheart invited me to sit in for a show.  Here’s what struck me during that first performance in a long, long while…

1) Your weaknesses never really go away.

I’ve always struggled with listening.  I get impatient and race to find the next thing.  Even when I was performing regularly, this was an issue.  But when you have more reps, you’re able to lessen the effects.  I believe your weak spots will always be weak, but there are degrees of weakness.  With a ton of rust, your trouble spots just feel much larger.  With practice, you can manage their symptoms.

2) If you can commit to something at the top of the scene, everything else flows.

That initiation is so important.  My favorite improv teacher, Mark Sutton, advocates taking a brief pause after the first ten seconds of a scene.  Whatever you’ve done to that point – that’s your promise to the audience.  You need to double down on that.  In the scenes where I gave myself a point of view or a physicality, I had tons of fun.  When I led with plot, I fell flat.

3) Don’t say stuff just to say stuff.

Improvisers are terrified of silence.  But I’d wager 25 percent of our dialogue is totally useless.  We’re just talking for the sake of talking.  Use your words to convey your emotion or point of view.  Provide information that will be useful to your scene partners.  If the words in your head won’t push things forward, don’t let them escape your lips.

4) Your teammates are the answer to every problem.

A younger me would walk on stage with entire scenes mapped out.  If I could just initiate hard enough, I believed I could drag my scene partner through the maze.  What an idiot.  Instead of white-knuckling every scene, I simply brought one idea to the party.  I looked at what my scene partner brought, and then we fit those ideas together.  Audiences go bonkers when they see you making the connections in real time.  Embrace that danger.  See how hard you can celebrate the gift your partner brought.  Give them gifts in return.  Watch the perpetual energy spin.

5) Improv is perhaps the most fun activity on earth.

I had so much ridiculous, stupid fun.  I’ve got to get back on stage immediately.  Don’t take those shows for granted, my friends.

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4 responses to “5 things I learned by taking a year off between improv shows

  1. Out of curiosity, did you literally have no outlet to perform improv once you lost your team? Or did you take the opportunity to step back from performance for awhile? I ask because it seems unusual that you couldn’t find any opportunity for almost a year. I know Chicago stage time is competitive, I’m just wondering HOW competitive.

    • Thanks for your question, Kevin. Of course, the deal with improv is that you need A) a venue and B) someone else to perform with. I tried pitching shows to various theaters, but never got a green light. I also haven’t been invited to join established groups. Forming (and booking gigs with) independent teams isn’t something I’ve had success with. I’ve also auditioned at some theaters without success. Could I have performed at some bar or as part of an open jam? Sure. But with more than a decade of experience, I’m looking for something more regular.

      • Cool, thanks for the reply. I guess I’m just spoiled in Austin; there’s a mainstage show with open casting every week, a timeslot for people to try out randomly-weird format ideas, and you can usually schmooze your way into guesting with one troupe or another. Plus all troupes can submit to the various theaters on a two-month cycle. I guess Chicago has enough people wanting to improvise that it’d be hard to be so fast-and-loose with granting stage time.

  2. Pingback: Polishing your diamonds | Improv, self-betterment, and tacos

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