I used to work with this guy named Reed back in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama. He was rather flamboyant and gregarious and didn’t think twice about telling an off-color joke (this was the 1980s) or offering his clients a little bourbon to add to their Cokes. He had attended the University of Alabama, and his office walls were papered with photos of Reed glad-handing local sports luminaries like Paul “Bear” Bryant, Hank Aaron, and Ken Stabler (God rest his recently departed soul).
Reed also kept an artifact in his office. If you know Alabama, you know that the mascot is the elephant. The centerpiece of Reed’s office was a coffee table made with a pedestal that had once been the foot of an actual live elephant. I kid you not. I would include a picture of what I’m talking about but that would just be gross. I will commend you to Mr. Google if you would like to research further, but I warn you, it is not an image easily shaken.
That brings me to the subject of this week’s piece. What are you thinking about right this minute? It doesn’t have anything to do with elephants, I’m sure, because whatever you do, don’t think about elephants.
Come on, I know you’re thinking about elephants right now. No - don’t look at the picture. That will just make you think about elephants more. Think about something else instead. Go to your happy place, remember your childhood best friend, call up that presentation you have to make in the morning, go to Facebook right now. Just don’t think about. . .It happened again, didn’t it?
Now you can’t get them out of your head, can you? No matter what I say for the rest of this post, your mind’s eye will be filled with pachydermic pictures. Doubly so if you actually pulled up Google images of unusual coffee tables.
This is what improv is for me right now. It’s a Chinese finger puzzle. The harder I try to get out, the tighter it holds on. A guy named Jake Lewis, on a now-apparently-defunct blog called the Agents of Improv, described the condition beautifully:
The first common problem with trying to get out of your head is that you try to think of ways to get out of your head. Suddenly, you realize with horror, that you’re still in your head and thinking about getting out of it is only making it worse. Then you try to think of a way to stop thinking, but curses you’re back inside your head! Before you know it, your scene is over and it sucked. The cycle will likely continue for the rest of your practice/show.
Sound familiar? It seems that everybody who does improv, at one time or another, has suffered this elephantine paradox, some early on as we progress in classes and try to pack more and more techniques, principles, rules, and formats into pitiful underachieving brain matter. Some after a year or two of concerted effort at learning and getting better. Some even have a crisis years into their improv careers, sort of a seven-year itch, why-in-the-hell-did-I-ever-think-I-was-any-good-at-improv kind of thing.
There is good news, however. All of my research on the issue (which has been extensive and relentless, because that’s just what I do) has led me to the conclusion that absent medication the best cure for insidemyheadedness is really very simple: time and experience. Improv is just one of those endeavors for which we must pay our dues before we finally synthesize and internalize what we’ve been learning. Those dues can only be paid on stage and in class. (How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice! It's an old joke.)
Doesn’t that sound like how you felt learning to drive? When you were 15, you were hyper-aware of everything you did and wondered how in the hell you would ever learn to coordinate everything you needed to accomplish to operate a two-ton hunk of steel filled with flammable liquids and not turn it into a giant pinball (bumper car, billiard ball, atom smasher - you pick the metaphor that best describes your 15-year old driving style). But you did it. And now you can drive 80 miles an hour on the Tollway, curse at right-wing talk radio, apply mascara, and dictate a message to Siri (because you would never text and drive), all at the same time.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the maxim that we need to spend 10,000 hours at something to become good at it. If that’s true, I won’t be a good improviser for about 15 years, assuming five levels of class, Jams, the occasional workshop, and joining at least two troupes that regularly practice and perform weekly.
In the meantime, because we are driven, ambitious, and action-oriented individuals, and I bet none of us is willing to just let the passage of time cure elephantitis, I offer up to you some of the pearls of wisdom and practical advice I’ve taken away from my research.
Act. Don’t cower in the wings. Step up front and center and take some action with your body. Your hands are on the ends of your arms. Use them. Something will come of it because your scene partner has your back.
Fail. You don’t get better as an improviser unless you take risks. Good scenes are fun, but you learn more from a bad scene. Thank God you have lots of safe learning (failing) opportunities to take advantage of right now in class, at Jams, and in practice sessions.
Practice. Go to class. Get onstage at the Jams. Form a troupe. You see all your favorite performers on stage again and again, some multiple shows a night. How did they reach that level? More experience, more time on stage.
Pick a mantra. Repeat it before and during sets:
“Listen and react.”
“Listen and trust.”
“Yes, and. . .”
“Stay in the moment.”
“Don’t think about elephants.” (seriously).
“AEIOU” (Action, Emotion, I statements, Observations, U (you) statements)
Bottom line is, I feel better knowing that even if I want it all to happen now, it’s not going to. What I’m learning needs time, like wine needs to ferment and age. One day, hopefully in the not too distant future, I will realize as I take my bows with my troupe that I spent those last 25 minutes without a single thought of elephants. They were there, below the surface, ready for me when I needed them, and in fact they did the heavy lifting. I just didn’t realize it because I was listening and reacting spontaneously to my scene partners. After all, we make this stuff up off the top of our heads, not from inside it.
Next week: The David and Sunny Show (or “Yeah - you remember that guy David, he broke his back. Whatever happened to him?”)
Carron is a Level 4 student in the Dallas Comedy House Training Center, where her husband, Gary, is in Level 2 and her daughter, Haley, is in Level 1. She is pleased that they form DCH’s first improv family dynasty (as far as she knows). Their legacy will be a new house format called the Armstrong.