Thursday, November 17, 2011

But I've been doing this for ten years...

In every improv class there is a mix of new improvisers excitedly taking in every bit of information with a zeal of inquiry and a group of experienced improvisers thinking: But I've been doing this for ten years, what could I possibly discover?

With newfound humility, I admit, I am from the latter, and I'm not alone.

You know who you are - sure of yourself and your skills based on a string of previously successful teams and shows.

As much as you love improv, which is why you swallowed your pride and signed up for class in the first place, deep down you cannot escape the feeling that nothing and no one will ever touch the golden memories of your old team and the group mind that allowed you to soar to new heights of improv glory.

Then you mount the stage on your first night of class and perform a so-so scene that you secretly blame on your partner, and it suddenly hits you: What if it was JUST group mind all those years?

Granted folks on your old team were talented, smart, funny, and enthusiastic, etc, but the fact that you had been playing together for five years certainly helped. The time together is what made you.

Now, during your moment of self-doubt, you realize that maybe it is time to leave your ego at the door and learn something new.

Thus begins the job of marrying your existing improv self with new guidelines, games, ideas, and exercises.

Obviously, based on my earlier confession, I am no expert, but here are some ways I have been able to mix my old with my new:

1. Stop Judging Yourself. Ok, this is a no-brainer, but it's easy to shut down in class, especially when things are different than what you are used to or you feel like you are not doing your best.

Let it go. Let go of the belief that you know everything there is to know about improv.

Yes, use what you know, or think you know, but don't give yourself the added pressure of proving your skills to yourself, to your students or to your teacher. If you go in with nothing to prove, you have nothing to lose.

2. Listen. When you have in your memory bank a backlog of scenes and experiences, it is easy to go into your head when the teacher is describing a guideline or idea. It is easy to try and relate it to your past experience, which at first seems helpful but ends up not being helpful at all, especially in a class setting where experimentation is essential.

When you get too much in your head and compare new ideas to old, you stop listening. Feel free to ruminate and compare at home in your pajamas, but stay present as much as possible in class.

3. Stop Judging Your Classmates. It's our dirty little secret, but we all do it at one point or another. Stop!

On your previous team you learned from the other players and from the group mind you had established.

So, don't stop learning now just because your classmates seem to have varying levels of experience. They all have something to teach you. We all have different strengths. Rather than deciding that you know more because you've been doing this longer, remember that they have a fresh perspective.

And some of them might have been doing it longer than you think.

4. Learn the rules and then forget them. Most teachers will tell you there are no rules, just guidelines. Remembering this is of the utmost importance in improv.

You need to learn the guidelines because ultimately they are there to make you more comfortable and successful.

But the second you start to make your focus the guildelines instead of the relationship, game, need, or location, then you're already in your head and the scene is lost.

Let go of the fourth-grader who desperately wants to impress everyone, follow the rules, and earn 100%.

That fourth-grader is only holding you back from discovery.

Once you have learned the rules, forget them. From my experience it is almost impossible to completely erase them from your memory, so you won't, in fact, forget and break them to the point of your collective demise; instead you will forget to obsess over them, ultimately using them unconsciously, naturally and successfully.

In closing, I haven't said anything that us improvisers don't all already know.

I'm just reminding us all to remember it before entering the classroom.

And please, if you see me around, feel free to remind me too.

I welcome the group remind.

- Annie Mackay

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