How Not to Get Burned Out on Improv

Trust me, there’s a point to this list:

  • Monday night I had improv class. After class I stayed to watch a couple of troupes perform. After that I went to grab drinks with an improviser to discuss a new project I’ve been thinking about.
  • Tuesday night I had a date with an improviser.
  • Wednesday night (last night) I rehearsed with Mandinka for two hours before we went to ColdTowne to compete in the Cagematch.
  • Tonight I have two shows–the triumphant return of JTS Brown at The Hideout and Dexter-inspired improv at the Free Fringe.
  • Friday night I’m supposed to play in Pick Your Own Path at The Hideout.

Five nights. Each of them improv-related. (Though to be fair, the Tuesday-night date turned out to be one big offer block.)

Weeks like this, with back-to-back-to-back commitments, aren’t unusual. And compared to my life before improv, when having any plans on a weeknight was a novel excuse to celebrate, it’s nice to be busy. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m tired today, and I’m not looking forward to tonight’s two shows.

So how do you keep yourself from getting burned out on improv?

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There’s not a one-size-fits-all antidote to creeping improv fatigue, because the nature of the fatigue is personal an unique. Some people might feel like they’re neglecting other areas of their lives; others may feel uninspired by the work they’re doing onstage or in rehearsal; while others may just start to dislike the activity altogether.

So in the interest of recharging my own batteries, and maybe helping some of you from resenting your time in improv, here are my suggestions on how to avoid improv fatigue…

1. Keep a Detailed Calendar

Not the Mayan calendar, for the record.

Not the Mayan calendar, for the record.

Almost six months ago I started a new job as what is, more or less, a Project Manager. Before this job keeping a calendar was a hit-or-miss affair: somedays I’d get inspired and enter everything into my iCal, but it would inevitably fade into irrelevance as I abandoned it. But now, a calendar is my lifeline to sanity. Perhaps my biggest pet peeve is tardiness, and the calendar keeps me from being late anywhere (in fact, I show up to most appointments at least five minutes early). More importantly, it keeps me from missing commitments altogether, which is like tardiness on steroids, a terrible feeling.

By laying out all of my improv commitments in a calendar—including shows, rehearsals, auditions, and even shows I’m plan on going to watch—I’m able to keep a macro-view on potential burnout. If a week like this, in which I have something most evenings, creeps up then at least I’m aware of it going in. There’s no surprise. I can steel myself for the onslaught of commitments.

And the calendar will help you keep an eye out for chances to…

2. Say No!

Wow, this is a big one, and one I still struggle with. When I first entered the improv community I wouldn’t turn down a single performance opportunity. Any chance to get onstage, even if only as a small part of a big show or jam, I leapt at it.

And let me be clear: For newer improvisers, I fully endorse saying “yes!” to everything. One pitfall for true rookies is “too much time in class, not enough time onstage.” Obviously improv training is critical; but nothing is as educational as stage time in front of an audience. So sign up for shows. Tell people you want them to include you in their shows. Do Maestro. Go the ColdTowne or Institution Theater jams. Form a troupe and apply to the theater’s open calendar submissions. Even if you’re not “fully prepared” … get onstage, damnit! As helpful as in-classroom learning is, and it is, nothing will highlight your bad improv habits and reinforce your good ones quite like live performance.

But all of that said … I think there comes a point at which you have to start saying “no” to some opportunities. Now, I’m just now getting there, kind of. For the first two years it wasn’t like I had tons of people begging me to be in their shows; I still don’t. But I am now starting to see a few more opportunities pop up, and as much as it pains me sometimes to say “no,” it’s good for my improv brain and a respectful move to your colleagues. Trust me, a show organizer would rather have an engaged, enthusiastic improviser than a tired, resentful, overtaxed one. Always be respectful when saying no, of course, and make it clear that you’re appreciative of their offer; but for your own long-term improv energy, give yourself a couple of nights off.

Which leads naturally to…

3. Find As Much Balance As Possible!

EXTREME BALANCE! MAXIMUM BALANCE!

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the delight in improv grow deeper. As Robert Greene points out in his seminal work, the 48 Laws of Power, “scarcity creates desire.” If we deny ourselves something then we appreciate it more, and improv is no exception. Taking brief breaks, even just a week, can reinvigorate your love for the craft the next time you’re in rehearsal.

I think it was Del Close who said something to the effect of, “The more you know, the more you can make fun of.” Which is a way of saying that you need experiences outside of improv in order to bring more into improv.

Think of bands who are huge hits with their first album who then experience the sophomore slump when their second record fails to impress. I suspect it’s because their first album was written from a place of authenticity, while the second album is written when the band is famous, rich, successful, well liked and respected, etc. That sort of radical change in lifestyle tends to produce less interesting subject matter.

ThirdEyeBlind_Blue

No, seriously, there’s some good songs on here!

Improv is like that. If all you do is improv, eventually you’ll become so separated from those other sources of inspiration in your life that you won’t have nearly as much source material from which to draw references. You’ll end up doing improv about improv—and what could be more of a downer than that?

But despite all of this, don’t forget that…

4. Improv Makes It Better

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been driving to a show or rehearsal and thought to myself, “Ugh, I’m tired. I wanna go home and play Halo. I want to eat a giant bag of cheese puffs and read a book,” only to lose all doubts as soon as I start playing with my friends. In fact, I’ve arrived at an improv engagement downright depressed about something, but moments later when we’re warming up I’ve forgotten about my sadness and embraced the delight of playing make-believe. Improv has magical curative capabilities. It softens our focus and widens our perspective. Improv can remind us, quickly and starkly, that life is a big absurd gift and we should spend it playing, laughing, and enjoying the company of the people we love.

Go to the damn improv show and leave your worries behind.

2 Comments

  1. MJW on July 11, 2013 at 10:25 am

    :)->—<

  2. Kevin Miller (@happywaffle) on July 12, 2013 at 11:21 am

    Other thing about keeping a calendar is, you don’t end up flaking on your friends when you double-book yourself. I mark shows out months in advance sometimes.

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