The Eventual Plateau

There are months, and even years, in my improv career where I have felt completely stuck. I’ve felt like I was doing everything “right”, and yet, I just couldn’t seem to break out of the same old habits. I was playing the same British lady in every show, gravitating toward the same games, and getting the same notes over and over again. I just couldn’t seem to take genuine risks because they didn’t even occur to me. True risks were not even on my radar. I asked myself the dreaded question, “Am I actually getting worse?”.

Over the years, I started thinking of this feeling as plateau; a flat-line in my development, after a previous period of progress. If you’re an improvisor, artist, or creative, you probably know the feeling.

When you first start improvising, every class feels like you’re learning something new. There are so many milestones! Completing your very first class, the first character you play in a scene, your first class show in front of an audience! It seems like at every turn, there is a new concept for you to wrap your head around, and new risks for you to take!

But eventually, you plateau.  I mean, everyone is different; sometimes you’ll plateau after you reach a goal (ie. “I auditioned and made it into a company!”), or sometimes you’ll plateau from fatigue (ie. “I don’t have energy to workshop every week”), or sometimes you’ll plateau from hubris (ie.  “I took Level 3, I have nothing left to learn.”). Regardless, there will be a moment where you feel suddenly self-conscious, your director is frustrated with you, and you want to quit improvising.

I’ve seen so many young improvisors quit at their first big plateau. It’s the first time they’ve felt frustrated in an otherwise extremely positive experience, and they feel like there’s something flawed within themselves. It’s tragic, really, because once you’ve been improvising for a while, you start to notice this pattern of growth / plateau / growth / plateau. You get used to it. Once you can identify what’s going on, you can more easily tackle it head on.

Some ideas on how to break out of your plateau:

Talk to someone you look up to
If you’re feeling this way, articulate it. Sometimes even being aware of it is enough.

Read a book about improv or creativity.
My improv brother from another mother, Kory Mathewson, has a great list here. Montreal Improv has cool mini-reviews for a lot of books here.

Reinvest in improv workshops
When’s the last time you took a class? Take another one. Travel for an intensive, seek out an instructor you’ve always wanted to learn from, or revisit an instructor you loved before.

Watch an improv show at another theatre
How often do you seek out improv at a different theatre? What are they doing differently? What do they do well?

Watch an improv show at your theatre
If you’re not in a show, do you usually watch it? Ask yourself, what is this show missing? Look for patterns and gaps in the show.

Improvisation is 100% process. In any process, there are peaks, valleys and plateaus. In any process, there is frustration, whether we like to admit it or not. In every process, it’s possible you are getting worse, but in the end, if you stick with it, it will make you better.

The 12 Tips for Festival Organizers

Blog 3 - 12 tips

Photo by Marc-Julien Objois.

Here’s a little throwback to a post I wrote for the best improv blog out there, People and Chairs.

Saying “Yes” And Owning It

Photograph by Meryl Smith Lawton.

The following is an article that I wrote in 2013 for the professional journal for an edition called Gender & Theatre at The Margins. Special thanks to Nikki Shaffeullah, who is a rad improvisor, and the Editor-in-Chief for the magazine. She encouraged me to start writing about my experiences in improv, and she also inspired me to dress better.

Read it below or download the PDF directly.

Getting Some Inputs

Blog 1 - Getting Some Inputs (1)

I’ve often wondered why so many improv scenes start with:

  1. silently digging a hole
  2. silently burshing your teeth
  3. silently opening a cupboard

I call these scene starts “the classics”. Don’t get me wrong, I rock “the classics” all the time, and so do many improvisors around the world. There are awesome scenes that come out of “The Classics”, and we all understand these as patient, universal, environment-focused scene starts.

But no matter where you go, be it Milan, or Bogota, or a high school in northeast Edmonton, “The Classics” prevail as ways to start a scene. How can this be? Certainly in people who live in different places have different experiences? In fact, as improvisors we all have diverse and rich histories? So why are we all starting scenes the same way?

For six years, I was the Artistic Director of Rapid Fire Theatre, and it ruled. During this time, each week I was performing in multiple shows, teaching several classes, doing corporate events, working on show programming, meeting with fellow artists to discuss how they were feeling in the company, attending board meetings, and generally giving most of my time, and pretty much 100% of my creative brain-space to improv, and improv-related pursuits.

If you all you do is dream, scheme and breathe improv, your scene work might begin to feel a bit repetitive. I noticed that I started to have a constant feeling of déjà vu. I’d lived this scene before, either by seeing it in a class, or talking about it in notes, or doing something similar on stage. Everything felt recycled.

In other words, the only input to my inspiration was improv, so my only output were things that looked like “improv”, like “The Classics”.

So if you’re stuck in this improv feedback-loop, what’s the fix? How can we start having more varied inspiration? How can we move beyond what the audience has begun to expect? The answer is pretty simple, but it can be challenging to make time for it.

Do ANYTHING else. Let yourself live some more life. Take a risk; join a softball team, shadow someone who has a weird job, go parasailing, buy a paint set, go on a blind date, ask a grandparent a deep question. You will return to the stage richer, more knowledgable, with a deeper understanding of the one thing you practiced. Curiosity makes you stronger.

The designer, Stefan Sagmeister talks about the importance of giving yourself time to gather inputs, in my favourite Ted Talk.

Sometimes taking a week off of improvising can be the best thing for your improv.