Getting Out Of Our Heads


by Heather Urquhart

If you’re an improviser, chances are you’ve heard or used the expression ‘being too in your head’. In my experience this phrase normally has negative connotations. ‘Hey guys why wasn’t our show so great tonight?’ ‘We were too in our heads’ or ‘I totally froze in that scene, I way too up in my head’. Infact, if you’re a performer of any kind, then maybe you’ll also know what it feels like to be too ‘in your head’. But what does it mean and furthermore, does it always have to be a bad thing?
A little bit of research on this seems to show that the expression is relevant to many performance situations, sport, music, exams and theatrical performance. All of the references I have found that describe ‘being in your head’ are negative. If you want to terrify yourself then please read this article by Malcolm Gladwell , “The Art of Failure,” in which he discusses the psychology behind why people buckle under pressure.
How then, in an artform (improvisation) that requires you to be focussed, present and alert and let’s face it – in your head – can you not be in your head?!

I feel specially qualified on the subject of cerebral improv as for the last few years the Maydays have had lots of show concepts based on quite specific source material. Rather than a word or location as a starting point for a scene we’ll have Confessions from the audience, newspaper stories or monologues for example. Working from such rich material is inspiring and generates lots of ideas but on the flipside it can sometimes mean that I will often step out into the stage with a more fully formed premise than if I were starting from nothing. Or in other words a head full of ideas that aren’t necessarily to do with the other people that you are onstage with. This has certainly lead to some quite ‘heady’ shows.

There is no denying that feeling in your head can be a bit rubbish frankly. Maybe you know what I mean. Does any of this sound familiar?
When being in your head can be bad:
You don’t give eye contact or find connection with your stage partners (or audience partners)
You deny others ideas if they don’t fit with yours
You are thrown when something doesn’t fit your plan
You cross initiate
You stop listening because you’re waiting to get your idea in
You can’t hear things above the chatter in your head
You discuss concepts rather than showing action
You forget to have fun!
Recently we were very lucky to spend a week working with Rich and Rebecca Sohn of the Annoyance Theatre and they did a great job of  reminding us of what is really important when you are improvising: the other people you are improvising with.
However this experience and a conversation I had with with Graham Allcott of Think Productive has made me realise how much of a heady improviser I actually am. We were talking about the role of improv in productivity and discussing the different mental processes that people go through when improvising.  In a recent class, he had touched on the notion of ‘rolodexing’, (the term we use for quickly flicking through your mental filing cabinet and quickly coming up with a bank of ideas around a theme). One of the most heady things you can do in improv. “Doesn’t everyone do that?” asks Graham.
This got me thinking. Thinking about how much I plan my improvisation. I know alot of fantastic improvisers that never go on with any ideas at all but when I improvise a song for example I will often have the verse written in my mind before I’ve even opened my mouth. How much have I decided about my character, where I am and how I feel stepping out in a show before I’ve even consulted my partner? Do I let myself discover anything? Am I even improvising my improvising?
I do know one thing. When I’ve done a really good scene or show, I have no recollection of thinking about it at all. It feels more like the ideas come through me rather than from me. Sometimes I don’t even remember much about what happened straight after. This ties in with the idea of flow that Liz mentions in a previous blog. 
For now though, let’s return to this notion of being in your head. Can it ever be a good thing? Drumroll…I think it can.

When being in your head can be good:

  • The feeling of confidence that comes with the sense that you’ve got an idea. Sometimes being inspired by a fun idea can make you feel like you’re flying onstage.
  • Making a small mental choice at the top of the scene that informs a character choice. By yourself, you might make a decision or give yourself a secret want that gives your character a richer more 3d feel.
  • When I was in the girl guides, our motto was ‘Be prepared’. I have a little technique I call the ‘back pocket’. I will store something in my mental back pocket and just remind myself that the fun is in there should I need it.
  • Callbacks. John Cremer is the master of callbacks. Sometimes a good callback can really nail things, especially when it bookends a show. Sadly, there is sometimes recall involved and a good dose of knowing when it’s not needed too.
  • Your own special knowledge. Del Close always said ‘play to the top of your intelligence’. If you have specific knowledge on a subject and it comes up why not use it in your work. Facts can make fiction even more real and rich. Rebecca Macmillan is excellent with historical references for example.
  • Being an caretaker for the whole piece. These improvisers are nice aren’t they? They can somehow float above the action with half an eye on the bigger picture while never taking their eye of the ball. An improviser like this might initiate a scene with aa different energy to vary up the tone of the show or recognise a theme that’s developing and follow that. It happens to me rarely but never when I think about it!
  • Finally, being in your head is great when you are prepared to let go of everything that’s in it so that you can be in  the present moment that you are sharing with the human being opposite you.
We all improvise so differently that the above might sound like your nightmare. If so, ignore everything I have said above, get back in your body and do what feels right for you.
You don’t have to try to get in your head, just don’t beat yourself up if you’re in it.
  1. Nathan Keates

    Are you talking about being in your head being good or being attentive to your show?
    I dont like rollerdexing, it puts me in my head. I can be wrong. So judgement and extended thinking is being in your head. Realising what’s happened and what could be a premise are short and without judgement. If this is true then what else is true. If it takes too much time, then you’re in your head. You worry about being wrong with the premise initiation.
    Okay, my thoughts.

  2. Julia Knight

    For me, rollerdexing is a way of waking up my sub-conscious and alerting it to the topic/theme in hand. For example, if required to step forward and initiate with a song line (assuming more than 2 seconds notice) I am typically running through a bunch of songs in my head, searching for lines. But when I step forward, I hardly ever utter any of those – something else comes out!

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