After the big comedy festival that just took place here in Austin, my urge to create is strong. But I’m moving with caution. While the Notes app on my iPhone is filled with ideas—for formats, shows, new games, goals—I’m not leaping on any of them just yet. I want my next improv project to be legit.
I just turned 34. The time I devote to any single pursuit, like improv, implies the negation of infinite other pursuits. In other words, if I go to an improv rehearsal, I’m necessarily not reading, exercising, going on a date, meeting friends for pub trivia, relaxing, cooking, whatever.
Last night I attended one of Dave Buckman’s famous diagnostic workshops. He opened by asking each of us to describe our “relationship with improv.” I told him that improv and I had a fiery courtship, and we got engaged very quickly. But the engagement has lingered, and we haven’t set a wedding date yet. It’s growing a little stale and frigid, i.e., we love each other but we don’t lust much these days. We haven’t been on a date night to Olive Garden since, what, March? April? I dunno, we’re both really busy at work.
Let us not misunderstand each other, reader: I still very much enjoy improvisation. In the past, however, I would’ve added, “…and want to do more of it.” But now I would instead add, “…and want to do better of it.” After two years into the improv community in Austin, I’m no longer fueled by quantity; I’m fueled by quality.
I want to focus, first, on taking my improv skills to the Next Level. That’s a corny place to aspire to. The Next Level? Really, YesAndrew?
A Quick Explanation by Way of a Quick Story
When I was 18, I was a big dumb kid stepping into the sunlight for the first time. I’d moved away from home to Austin, and I was going to college. I had some talent as a performer, but I was mostly just the big dumb kid.
During the spring semester, a guy on my speech team told me about the Poetry Slam thing. I tagged along to a bar called The Electric Lounge (which is now a yuppie gym, and which represents “Old Austin” to me). The poets were mostly in their mid-20s, and they were doing weird funny stuff onstage. It was irresistable to the little wannabe Braodway theater kid in me.
So I signed up for the slam, and I wrote some big dumb “poems”—-mostly about drugs and girls—-and performed them. I was young and a novelty. The older veteran poets were kind and saw me as a cute bauble, but nothing to be taken seriously.
They were right.
After two years of competing in the weekly poetry slam, I still hadn’t made it to the heralded Third Round. The Third Round was the final round of the slam, and it meant you’d already done well twice. (Plus, there was $20 to the winner on the line.) In my defense, I hadn’t taken the poetry slam seriously either. I didn’t practice or memorize my poems; I was still busy with college classes and getting high beside a creek behind my dorm. And girls.
But then one day I decided to Step Up My Game. I spent more time preparing for the next week’s slam. I wrote more, edited more, memorized more, practiced. And pretty quickly I made it into the vaunted final round of a slam. Then I did it again the next week. That little bit of prep resulted in results (which is what “resulting” should generally result in).
And Now Back to My Main Point
You get the idea? The idea is this: It’s important, in your first couple of years of improv (and just about every other avocation) to just dive in and splash around. Get onstage as much as possible. Do every show you can and want to. Play in jams, and Maestros, and weird tournament-style events, and open mics, and whatever. Get. On. Stage.
Getting onstage is the only way to discover what turns you on. Once you’ve found what turns you on, it’s time to start seducing.
Because except for the preternaturally talented few, what prevents most of us improvisers from doing our best work is the allure and mystery of The Stage and The Audience.
The Stage refers to the physical power of the performance space. There’s a raised platform; and there are lights focused on us; and there are chairs facing us; there is a backstage area and a green room; there is a buzz. And all those trappings do what? They make us self-aware. And too much self-awareness dooms potentially excellent improv to being, well, just improv.
Then there’s The Audience: a roomful of people who have paid (usually) to watch us make shit up. That’s fucking nuts! Some monkeys pay dollars they earn by working during the day to watch other monkeys play monkey games they haven’t even worked on ahead of time! And as one of these performing monkeys, we improvisers grow self-aware, if only subconsciously, of the ridiculousness of this set-up. And guess what that leads to.
But if we spend our first 24 months (or so) of our improv careers steamrolling every Stage and Audience we can get our hands on, we eventually come to where I have found myself: I know what makes me horny for improv now, and that’s where I want to spend My Precious Time. Specifically, I’m eager to do less better.
Less better. Less, better. Less and better.
I finally realize that The Stage isn’t going anywhere. The Stage will be there, as will be The Audiences. My mission now is to be as certain as possible that when I step onto The Stage that I’m bringing the most inspired, professional, and interesting improv I can.
We cannot control much about improv-the-nebulous-artistic-pursuit. Not if we’re doing it right. But we can control our approach to improv-the-way-we-spend-our-free-time. That approach changes over time. If we’re doing it right.
I don’t want this to seem high or mighty. Quite the opposite; it’s low and non-mighty. My real goal, when boiled down to its essence, is to make sure that when I step onstage, I’m doing so not because I “have to” or “can,” but because I want it.