When the Going Gets Tough

Head in Hands During a recent practice, one of my troupe mates expressed struggling with improv lately. Rehearsals had felt difficult and discouraging, and this person didn’t know what to make of the experience. The first thought that came to my mind was, “It’s a cycle.” I had felt crappy about my play just a week before. I’ll probably feel crappy about it again soon. We all know the feeling when things just aren’t clicking. It’s improv puberty; it happens to everyone.

I've been performing improv for almost four years now. That's a little while. I've been able to buy a drink at a bar (legally) for less time. In my near-presidential-term stint of making pretend, I've experienced plenty of ups and downs. We will always have both.

One of the toughest parts about practicing and performing improv is getting better. When you start, you’re overjoyed just to be able to express the thoughts in your brain. You feel an unmistakable exhilaration the first time you nail a great group game. Because you have done so little improv, every scene is a new scene. The work you’re doing might be good, but it is certainly good enough.

However, somewhere along the road, you get better. Your scenes become more consistent and you develop a small cache of improv memories. From this point forward you are cursed with the knowledge that you have done well before, and you feel a great sense of shame when you don't automatically replicate previous success.

Then you start to notice at shows how certain performers (many of whom have been improvising and teaching for years, mind you) always seem to stick the landing in scenes and why can't I be like them and just do good scenes like I used to and when did this get so frustrating and hard!?

A few things to remember:

  1. If you’re self-critical, it probably means that you care about the work you’re doing.
  2. You’re not the only, or necessarily, the best judge of your own work.
  3. Long-term consistency can consist of short-term inconsistencies. (LeBron James is shooting 30.9 percent from 3 this season. He’s a career 34 percent shooter from that range.)

It’s only because you’ve gotten better that you notice the flaws. A performer’s relationship with improv will always be cyclical. You will always go through phases of struggle and phases of euphoria. For me, it can even change week-by-week.

It’s a commonly held belief that you should regularly mix up your workout routine in order to maximize the time you spend exercising. If you do the same thing every day, your body adjusts and you no longer benefit from the activity.

The same is true when it comes to improv, comedy, and performance in general. If you spend all of your time practicing, you need to perform. If you spend all of your time performing you need to take a workshop or read a book. If you always improvise, you need to write. If you always do comedy you need to try drama. Change-ups give you a new perspective and offer an alternative when the fastball isn’t working.

In college, when I tired of our free-range improv environment, I’d focus on stand-up. When stand-up got sad, I’d work on sketches. When sketches felt difficult, I’d try to write a Regular Show spec script (I’ve got a pretty solid premise if it hasn’t been done yet. I haven’t watched Regular Show in like two years). With this system, when I felt deflated in one area, it didn’t prevent me from working in another.

It’s important to remember that this improv thing will never be automatic. Every time you complete the cycle of doubt and self-loathing (*cue graphic) you come out stronger and more consistent. When you watch a performer who always seems to have good scenes, it’s probably a product of many frustrating cycles. Even the established performers at Dallas Comedy House experience ups and downs:

“When I find myself in a period of regression or stagnation, I try to shake things up by playing with new people, new formats, and new characters. I watch more improv and go to more Jams.” — Tommy Lee Brown

“It’s easy to overanalyze. I used to do it a lot. A LOT. But I really try to dust it off as quickly as I can now. We’re adults playing make-believe, so it’s silly to beat myself up. And on the same note, when I walk off stage feeling too baller and cocky, I remind myself of the same thing. Learn from the good. Learn from the bad. Keep walking.” — Ashley Bright

“When I struggle, it feels like I'm forcing myself into the show instead of trusting the process and letting the show come to me. When that happens, I'm always more confident, creative, and generally having more fun.” — Ben Pfeiffer

“I think we make [improv] hard. We catch a glimpse of its splendor here or there and start chasing it. We think we can comprehend it or ‘do it this way’ so we can feel that thing we felt again. That's when it gets hard for me. When I think I can outsmart improv and make moves that aren't already there.” — Kyle Austin

The bottom line: Choosing to continue strengthens your skill set and ultimately gives you confidence for the cycles to come.

“The biggest thing I've realized about these peaks and valleys is that they pass. Focus on yourself, not just your improv but your life outside of it. Read more, take a walk, travel. Get out of your head and into your life because that's the real inspiration for everything we do on stage.” — Sarah Wyatt

Danny Neely is currently a Level 5 student at DCH. He works part time at a bakery and another part of  the time as a freelance writer. You can see him perform as a member of Big Turtle, Clover, Coiffelganger, Empty Inside, and Warm Milk.

(Image: Alex Proimos/Creative Commons)