Riffs on improv, innovation, and what it means to be curious

CURIOUSER & CURIOUSER

Finding Fun in Others (aka. Happy Birthday, Kory!)

Kory improvising with an audience member at Rapid Fire’s BONFIRE Festival. Photograph by Billy Wong.

My friend Kory Mathewson made a simple request for this 29th birthday; reflections on “finding fun in others”.

I would like to start this birthday message by telling you about Kory. He is a top tier improvisor with Rapid Fire Theatre in Edmonton, where he tours with a rad show called TedxRFT. He is one of my favourite people in the world to be on stage with because no idea is too ‘out there’, no game is too experimental. His response to my ideas is always, “Let’s do it, Amer!”. Whether it’s an improvised parliamentary-style debate, a musical, or a show full of challenging pulse-edits, Kory is always up for taking a risk on stage.

Kory is a truly gifted improvisor, I think in part because of his broad experience of the world.  He’s not the type of performer who exists in a echo chamber, spending 6 days a week workshopping in a theatre; he’s constantly trying new things, traveling, and learning. He studies computing science, and biomedical engineering. He builds websites, and software, and ROBOTS(!!). He likes rock climbing, cycling, “schvitzing”, making up nasty slang words, and seeking out the best food in the city. He chases weird experiences, and it makes you want to do the same.

Once he invited me to the university for a CT Scan, and a researcher complimented me the symmetry of my brain!
Once we were bike riding and we quietly watched a family of beavers screeching on the riverbank!
Once, in Austin, we stopped at every bar on the way to a party and did 98 whiskey shots!

So, how does this all relate to “Finding Fun in Others”?

Kory and I having a laugh riot at BONFIRE 2014. Photograph by Billy Wong.

Kory is a master at making you feel like a million bucks. When you’re in a conversation with Kory, he immediately digs deeper than “How are you?” or “What’s new?”.  He makes the whole conversation about you by asking so many questions. He says “yeah!” and “absolutely!” non-stop. He wants to talk about you rather than himself. He takes any kernel of information and expands upon it. He can talk to anyone about anything for EVER.

Kory consistently strikes up conversations with strangers in elevators. When I first met him, I wondered, “Why? Why would he do this?” At first, I assumed it wasn’t genuine; he was just teasing the person he was talking to, or he had some other agenda. But I now know that Kory is just that curious. He is legitimately interested in what a random teen is eating for lunch, or where a bartender first tasted a certain liqueur, or why you like the dress you are wearing.

There are so many days in our lives where we feel insignificant, like the little things we do are inconsequential or routine. Kory is a great example of someone who shines a spotlight on little details, and makes you feel like you are the most interesting person in the room.

Kory has taught me to find the fun in others by helping them find the fun in themselves.

Happy birthday, Kor!

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Kory and I wearing matching “BUTT” shirts. Photograph by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

Photographs by Billy Wong (http://www.semigravity.com/) and Marc-Julien Objois (http://marcjulienobjois.com).

The Improv Kiss

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Cathrine Frost Andersen & Mats Eldøen of Det Andre Teatret (Oslo, Norway). Photograph by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

Physical intimacy is one of our storytelling tools as improvisors. How we touch, or don’t touch, and our proximity to our fellow performers gives the audience cues about the relationship. Indeed, a simple pat on the shoulder, or holding hands with a scene partner, can go a long way in terms of giving texture to the scene. So can a kiss, or a full body hug, or a well-timed, comedy stage-kick to the groin.

Recently, Steve Fisher of NOW in Toronto, wrote The Ins and Outs of On Stage Intimacy, in which he profiles the work of intimacy coach Tonia Sina. She offers that, “Intimacy must be treated as choreography and should never be improvised.” I think she has a point. The article got me thinking… As improvisors, we often make assumptions around safety when it comes to physicality (for example, I would never use fight choreography in an improvised scene, unless the whole cast had the same understanding of the physical vocabulary), so why don’t we do the same when it comes to physical intimacy?

For me, a kiss has often signalled the end of the scene. My scene partner and I embrace, lips touching, and often the lights fade. End of story. For better or worse, this is how I see most kissing in improv used: as a resolution to a scene about some aspect of romantic love. With ensembles I work with regularly, and even experienced improvisors who I don’t work with regularly, I am fine with a quick closed mouth kiss to end a scene, but I acknowledge that not everyone shares my opinion, nor should they.

However, a few months ago, I was in a mono-scene where I was seducing a fellow performer. We were half way through our 40-minute set – it was not the end of the show – and I could feel that we were building to a intimate moment. This choice was in context of the characters and the narrative we were exploring; two married people having a tryst while their spouses were out of the room. The spouses were gone, and it was time to finally show what we had set up.

Now, I trust this performer, on stage and off – we perform together a lot, they’re a dear friend, and a professional actor. But when the moment came to make a move, I was paralyzed. I had cornered myself into a game of chicken, and it was fun for a while, but now I was stuck there. I knew the lights wouldn’t come down if we kissed, because of the constraints of the show (lights were to stay on our whole set), so we’d have to kiss again. And then what? AND THEN WHAT?! My heart was racing, and my gut said no. I pulled away, changed the subject, and when we got off stage, I felt crummy for wimping so hard on his offers and my own.

Working up to this particular performance, which we knew would explore the dark parts of relationships as realistically as possible, we hadn’t made on stage intimacy part of the discussion. I think now if we had a mutual, previously-discussed understanding about physical connection, I think I would have felt more comfortable in the moment. Or maybe not. Either way, I made the right choice for myself in that instant. Even if my choice was because of my own insecurities with my partner or the audience, and it weakened our story overall, it doesn’t matter. We need to start defining behaviours, and our permissions around them, in order for them to be part of our repertoire as an ensemble, regardless of whether these behaviours become part of our shows or not.

Personally, I am guilty of having doled out some kisses on stage without knowing if my scene partner was comfortable with them. Often times, as an afterthought, I have asked, “was that ok?”. The countless instances of sexual harassment that have come to light in recent months in comedy communities across North America have affirmed that my previous approach was less than ideal. It is imperative to start addressing this topic in our performance groups, as well as workshops, proactively, rather than as an afterthought. It all comes down to respecting your fellow performer, and their boundaries, as well as your own. Consent is required.

When I visited the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield, RI, one of the young performers approached me before a Maestro show. “Is there anything that is off limits for you, physically?”, he asked. He did so in a way that was gentle, friendly, and not a big deal. It was a learning moment for me. Before a show, as performers, we are backstage for half an hour or more. It only takes two minutes to ask everyone. Maybe someone isn’t comfortable kissing, maybe someone has a back injury, maybe everyone is cool with writhing in a ball. It’s that simple, and it’s worth it. No explanations necessary.

Saying “yes” and accepting offers is one of the key tenets of improvisation, but when it comes to onstage intimacy, you don’t have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. We need to make onstage intimacy part of the discussion before we hit the stage. Never say “yes” at the expense of your gut.

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Joe Bill & Lee White. Photograph by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

A huge thanks to Paul Blinov, a writer and improvisor from Edmonton’s Rapid Fire Theatre, for editing this post for me. Photographs by the rad Marc-Julien Objois (http://marcjulienobjois.com).

7 Theatresports Habit-breakers

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Photograph of Rapid Fire Theatre by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

When I was in my second year at Rapid Fire Theatre, I was convinced that the reason I was struggling on stage was because I was playing short form Theatresports™ (the format created by Calgary’s Keith Johnstone). I was positive that once I was doing long form improv, a lot of my troubles would go away. I blamed the format for my inability to commit to scenes, and thought playing games pandered to the lowest common denominator. Not only was an improv snob, I was wrong.

I later learned it’s never the format’s fault.

Looking back, I now know that short form and long form improv are the same. Sure, there are different structures to explore, but in the end, a good scene is a good scene, whether it stands alone or is sandwiched between other scenes. As a student in Red Deer recently put it, “It’s just the size of the canvas”. If you can do a great short form scene, you can probably do a solid long form, and vice versa.

This is all to say, I believe that Theatresports™ is a worthwhile structure to invest in. I’ve heard a lot of players who are newer to the form say they’re sick of it, they want to try something new. My message to them is: then try something new! The format is just the vessel for whatever you want to explore creatively. Any skill you want to explore can be explored through Theatresports™. You can create a longer story by tying your scenes together narratively. You can explore all the edits in the world (tap, sweep, pulse, flock). You can share personal stories in a mini-Armando. Don’t get caught up in the structure: it’s there to shape the show, not to be the show.

Here are some ways to shake up Theatresports™ if you are finding shows repetitive:

1. Make the Strangest Team You Can
Look around your ensemble and create the weirdest, most unbalanced team you can. Make a team of the people you never play with (maybe they’re from a different generation, maybe they are socially awkward, maybe you don’t get along). Make a team of people who seem to all have the same skill (a team of drivers, a team of monkeywrenchers). Ask an alumni you don’t know to sit in with you. Guaranteed there will be surprises in this show.

2. Mash Up Games
Ever played an Alphabet-backwards scene? Or a Moving Bodies Dubbing scene? Or Stage Directions using an exercise manual as the directions? Many handles are flexible and can be jammed together in wild and interesting ways. Can these games absolutely tank? Yes! But you know what they say: no risk, no reward!

3. Give All the Power to the Captain
Tell the captain of your team that they should decide all of the games for the whole match, and that you would love it if they kept them a secret from you. Tell them you want to be thrown into scenes, directed, and made to do things you don’t normally do.

4. Change up the Judges
If you have player judges, try audience judges, or do a Danish match, where the audience yells which team they prefer each round.

5. Find a Meta-Narrative
You can’t force this one, but it’s a great way to change things up. Keep your eyes open for patterns that emerge outside of scenes. How can what you do in scenes play into, or contrast, what you are doing out of scenes? If these meta-narratives take over the show, you have failed, but if they are spontaneous, they can add an electric energy to the show.

6. Mix Up Team Size
If you always do 3 on 3 matches, or 4 on 4, see what happens when you create teams of 2 or 5 or 1 performer. First off, the dynamics of the whole show will shift in terms of what you games you can play (He Said She Said is a great game for 2 people, but impossible for 1). Secondly, a meta-narrative may emerge (in the case of 5 vs. 1, it’s almost certain the solo performer will win the match. The audience loves an underdog).

7. Adjust the Tools
Ask the judges to get rid of their number 3s. Try a couple weeks in a row where your judges (or host) are very strict with the Basket/Ring of Shame/Paper Bag. Try a match with time restrictions on each scene of varying length. Challenge teams to do a scene with no suggestion. Try a week with or without a musical accompanist.

Photograph of Rapid Fire Theatre by the amazing Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

Improv Break Ups

I’m inspired to write this post after reading a discussion that took place on the Improv Theatre & Festival Management forum on Facebook. I have personally experienced what it’s like to separate from collaborators, ask cast members to leave a company, and request that public workshop attendees to stop signing up for workshops. I admit that I have made many mistakes along the way, but I hope this post can help shape the process for anyone who is unsure.

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Things just aren’t working out. The relationship isn’t functioning. Things have turned negative. Mutual respect has been lost. It’s time to break up. Whatever the reason, in your heart of hearts you know, you are faced with the difficult task of asking a member or your improv group to leave.

I’ve seen it happen many times. Often it’s clear who the troupe is having difficulty with. During post-show drinks, no one wants to sit next to this person. During rehearsal, people start dismissing their ideas. On stage, no one jumps in when they initiate a scene. Eventually, this person isn’t having fun anymore, and they slowly stop showing up. The rest of the cast secretly breathes a sigh of relief. This is the worst possible way to get someone to leave a group: through social ostracization. Think about how awful it would feel to be broken up with this way in any other relationship, and make a commitment to do better.

Face the person head on. It’s not easy, but you know it’s the right thing to do. Here are some ideas on how to ask someone in your troupe to step back:

Start Strong
Set up clear expectations for all cast members. It is most proactive way to deal with difficult decisions. Articulate what you, as a group, expect of each other.

-What is the purpose of your group? Is it to have a professional-level performing ensemble? Or is it to be a community drop in workshop? This will make a big difference in how you make decisions on who should be in the cast.

-Is it ok to be late for call time? How many times? What about absences?

-What happens if the quality of someone’s work is in decline? Is there any process for development opportunities to help them get better?

-Do you have a clear policy around harassment?

-Who decides if people are asked to step back? Is there a director, or is it done by a group vote?

Assess Regulary
See each other face to face to revisit your expectations at least once a year, and let group members know when they have not been meeting your shared expectations.

Meet in Person
If you are the director of the troupe, or if you have been elected by your peers to speak to the person, try your best to do so in person. It will be tempting to do it over email. Use this as a last resort only.

Meet somewhere that is quiet, and private, but a neutral space. (Think: somewhere you might break up with a romantic partner. A home is a bad idea). Be early, so you are there when they arrive. Be sure to speak first, and try to avoid open-ended questions like, “How do you think it’s going ?”. That will just lead them in a false direction. Take a deep breath…

Be Honest
When you are heading into the meeting, you need to be honest with the person about why you are asking them to leave. Start with your shared expectations, how this person has not met expectations, and that you are asking them to leave the troupe. Often times, if expectations are clear enough, the person might already know why they are being asked to leave, and might surprise you by being very understanding. This is a great testament to the planning you did as a troupe.

Above all, do not lie. If the reason is because of their conduct off stage, do not use being late for shows as a scapegoat. Be specific, and site examples. “It’s not a good fit” is too vague on its own, and will leave the person with a lot of questions. If the person has done something reprehensible, you need to bring that tone to the conversation; it’s not about creative differences if it’s about a breach of your harassment policy. They will never learn if they don’t know why they are being asked to leave.

Show Compassion
It is very hard to handle rejection, especially in an improv environment where so much of our training is on positivity and support. If appropriate, you can let the person know how much you appreciate the time and effort they have put in to your group, suggest other outlets for improv in the city, or extend the option to re-audition in the future. If you are friends, you can explain that this is not personal, but a professional decision. But, if you don’t sincerely believe these things, do not say them as a courtesy.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS:
Hold your ground. Occasionally the person might argue with you, or try to convince you to let them back in. Be prepared to reiterate your decision, and keep the meeting short. You can remind them that art is subjective.

Don’t do it if you are angry. If you are emotionally fragile, it will be hard to be professional and level-headed. Ask someone else from your troupe, or call in some back up to do most of the talking.

Remember it happens all the time. Many relationships, be they romantic, professional or creative come to an end. It’s not the end of the world, even though it might seem like it. Both parties will heal, and come out stronger on the other side.

I think when you can separate the professional and personal, making these kind of choices becomes much easier. Trust your gut, and measure it against the expectations you have in place, and you can’t go wrong.

Curious Monkey

Has a gif ever made you cry?

If you asked me last week if people ever cried while watching gifs, I would have said likely not. Yet, I now understand the contrary, because this silly one made me burst into tears the moment I watched it.

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The shock and amazement on the monkey’s face is so genuine that it brought me to tears. Such innocent wonder is something that we see children experience, but as adults, it is rare. I guess it’s hard to truly buy into a magic trick once you understand the definition of a “trick”.

A lot of our training in improvisation is focused on undoing the behaviours that were piled onto us as we grew up. These behaviours are valuable in the outside world; they keep us safe and allow us to be accepted socially. But on stage, we want to be vulnerable, impulsive, and open to any possibility. Pretty much the opposite of how we are supposed to act day to day.

The joy of improvisation is that we can play with unapologetic curiosity. We can react hugely to any offer our partner gives us. We can be boldly gullible, insanely innocent, and so sweet its stubborn. We can be voraciously curious about where the scene will take us next. We can be dazzled by the wonder of our imagination.

Sometimes you just need to weep about a monkey gif to be reminded of this.

Living in the Moment is Ageless

Performance at Creative Age Festival, 2011.

“I’m too old for that” is a statement I wish we could cut out of everyone’s vocabulary, including mine. As someone who essentially plays for a living, when I hear anyone say those words, I try to convince them otherwise.

You think you’re too old to take an improv class? Well, I can tell you from first hand experience, some of the most fearless improvisors I have ever worked with are in their 80s.

As you’re probably aware, the arts are being talked about more frequently as a way to improve the overall quality of life of older people. Taking part in a creative pursuit can by improve mood, memory, and physical health in our senior citizens. Plus, I believe art-making may be one of the best solutions out there for bringing generations together.

I began working with seniors through improv workshops put on by Edmonton’s GeriActors, Festival of Edmonton Seniors Theatre, and The Creative Age Festival. David Barnet, who was my professor at The University of Alberta, and is involved with these organizations, was a big part of why I got involved, and I am so thankful I did. He’s said to me in the past that it takes a certain type of person to work with seniors; someone with openness and flexibility, someone who can really  to really let the performers’ voices shine through. He certainly achieves this in his work.

Leading workshops for senior citizens is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my career as an artist. Sure, there are challenges, like memory or mobility, but overall, leading a workshop for older people is just like leading one for any other age group. In fact, in some ways, it’s easier. Many of the seniors I met are in the enviable position of just not giving a fuck. They have lived so much life that the panic most people feel when doing improv for the first time just isn’t there. Like kids, they can just let go and be surprised. It is thrilling to watch a 90-year old woman do something unexpected.

Inspired by these workshops, I started collaborating on projects with my grandfather (my ‘Dido’), Nick Shostak, Senior. Well, maybe less collaborating, and more coercing him to help me. Through these projects, I have experienced different sides of him that I had never seen before, and watched him take creative risks.

In 2011, we did a piece called My Dido The Orator , as part of Latitude 53’s IN/STALL/ED. We recreated my Dido’s living room in a parking stall in the McCauley neighbourhood, and passersby stopped by to chat and hear his stories. My Dido was an absolute showman, laughing and engaging folks all day. One of the most impactful parts of the project was that the more stories Dido told, the more stories the audience started telling. At one point there were 10 or 15 people, sitting cross-legged on the ground of a parking lot, exchanging stories about coming to Canada, about politics, about the neighbourhood.

Then there was The Slow Flash Mob, which I put together in 2013. The focus of the event was to enliven a lovely, but often empty, park in Edmonton with intergenerational activities. This project was also an experiment for me, to explore the challenges a citizen might face trying to put on an event, as part of my work with Make Something Edmonton

My Dido was the spokesperson for The Slow Flash Mob, and my friend Mike Robertson kindly helped us make a video to promote and raise funds for the event.


We also got to do an interview on TV. Dido seemed so excited to be at the station. He was curious about everything that was going on, talking to people who walked through the waiting area, and it was a rare moment where he seemed nervous. During our interview he seemed emotional, and made a great impression.

Slow Flash Mob SquareThe Slow Flash Mob event itself came with its challenges; attendance was lower than I had hoped, the weather was spotty, and I received some feedback that the park I chose was too inaccessible for many senior citizens. But despite these issues, the people who did attend expressed how important the event was, and how much they appreciated it.

Most significantly to me though, my Dido showed up right on time. He had a nametag that he made for himself, that proudly said NICK. I watched him walk excitedly down the many wooden steps to the park. This was his party, and he was genuinely in his element. And god, that made me happy. To see someone in his 80s trying improv, tai chi, playing board games. His attitude is certainly the one I hope to have in my golden years.

All of these projects serve as a reminder that seniors find all the same things exciting as you and I (sex jokes, physical humour, flirting, donuts), and they are eager to engage, just like us. They are vibrant, funny, fierce individuals. More importantly, these experiences helped me articulate that there is a gap between our generations that we can close through collaboration, and this benefits anyone at any age in life.

If you’re looking for someone to jam on an idea, or are looking for volunteers or instructors to work with seniors, please get in touch! Improvisation for senior citizens is something I think every community should explore.

The Improvisor is Present

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Improvisors Tom Hill & Devin Mackenize of Hip.Bang! Photograph by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

Eye contact. It’s scary with loved ones. It’s impossibly scary with strangers. It’s imperative for improvisors.

I remember the first day I was introduced to the work of Marina Abramović. I was a university student taking a survey course of 20th century art. As a woman of Slavic decent, with a flair for the dramatic, who also loved walking for long periods of time, I felt we had a lot in common. I was shocked by the brutality and gore of her Rhythm series, and moved by the romantic qualities of her work with her lover-collaborator Ulay.

Abramović’s art is definitely not for everyone. She’s violent, and inward-gazing, and what some people say is the problem with the contemporary art world. But for me, she is a woman who lives in a world defined by her personal mythology, and values being in the moment above all else. I think my favourite work is 1977’s, Breathing In Breathing Out, when her Ulay, shoved tampons up their noses, locked mouths and breathed in each other’s air until one of them asphyxiated.

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So what does this wild stuff have to do with improv? Besides the fact that some of her performances are pretty funny, there are plenty of other parallels. Abramović speaks about the importance of risk taking, failure, and process over product, but more than anything Abramović, to me, embodies to me what it means to be in the moment.

You’re probably familiar with her 2010 work The Artist is Present. Clips of it were circulating around Facebook, and it ran at the MoMA for 3 months. In this work, we see the transformational affect that eye contact can have.

When we relax, let go of our social masks (smiling, cracking jokes, aka. the ticks we have that keep us safe), and breathe, there is so much there.

I recently had students start scenes this way. With only eye contact, breath and physical proximity as a starting point, once students really connected through the gaze, they started to feel genuine emotion, and connect feelings to implied relationships with their scene partner.

“I felt like we were going to fight.”
“I know I disappointed him.”
“With every breath the relationship changed.”

All this information, from just seeing and being seen. By the time class was over, everyone in the room had glassy, shiny eyes. We were all more emotionally engaged than when we’d arrived.

When in doubt, breathe, and look at your partner. Trust that the rest is already there. So much of improv is about building up structure, but there is value in simplifying too, in stripping away.

As Abramović says, “In the gaze… everything happens.”

Photograph of Hip.Bang! by Marc-Julien Objois. http://marcjulienobjois.com/

Leading like an Improvisor

Photograph by the super-awesome Mat Simpson. http://matsimpson.co

One of my favourite improv exercises is Dolphin Training. I learned it years ago in a workshop led by Patti Stiles, who is with Impro Melbourne. It’s a partnered exercise that I use in almost all of the workshops I lead. It really allows me to get a sense of a group, and assess their ability to take risks.

It’s simple to play. Everyone pairs up. Partner A looks around the room and decides something that they would like Partner B to do. At first it should be simple: sit in a chair, flick the light switch off, close the curtains. Partner B moves silently around the space and tries to figure it out. The only way they know they are on the right track is that Partner A gives them a bell sound, a “ding”. When Partner B does the precise action that Partner A thought of, then they have succeeded, and the partners switch. It’s like a game of “Warmer or Cooler” you may have played as a child, except without the cool.

I love the game for many reasons:
-It trains the feeling of failure. The whole time you are guessing in silence, you feel the panic of not getting it right. You might feel lost or frustrated. Once you sit in this feeling for long enough, you start to get used to it, and slowly you learn to stay calm and keep playing.
-It forces participants to physicalize their ideas. They aren’t able to say “Do you want me to sit in the chair?”, they need to physicalize it. This becomes really important in scene work – showing not telling.
-It reminds us that we aren’t mind readers. Improv is about a give and take, about reactions. There isn’t a road map we’re following, and there are no wrong choices.
-PLUS! – it’s how they actually train dolphins, through positive reinforcement.

In recent years, I’ve been thinking about positive reinforcement, and how to approach my teaching from this perspective. I felt something was broken about how I was leading my students, when I saw many of them obsessed about the “rules” of improv, stressed about doing it “right”, and so in their heads.

When I first started learning improv, we’d do exercises around “blocking”, to demonstrate the difference between accepting an offer and shutting one down. I think that was, frankly, a waste of time. Blocking will happen, why practise bad habits? Nowadays I don’t even talk about blocking in a class, unless a student brings it up. I also don’t talk about “pimping”, or “shelving”.

(Sidenote: Sally Smallwood from People & Chairs wrote a great post about the term “pimping” and how it might be time for a new term.)

I’ve started trying to make a change in the way I lead workshops. I’ve been rewarding improvisors who make bold, risky choices even when they fall flat. The freedom to take risks is what I hope to foster in them. When we debrief about the best moments of a performance, I’ve been focused on not only pointing out big successes, but congratulating people for choosing difficult games, hosting for the first time, or trying on an accent.

I’ve tried to stop saying “never” or “always”, and I’ve been saying “I don’t know” and “Let’s try it!” more.

My goal is to approach my workshops with the same curiosity I bring to a round of Dolphin Training. Sometimes the only way to figure something out is by doing it.

Photograph by Mat Simpson. http://matsimpson.co

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. http://marcjulienobjois.com

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

http://peopleandchairs.com/2012/05/07/guest-post-12-tips-for-festival-organizers-by-amy-shostak/