I have just had the privilege of working with the excellent Katy Schutte and Phil Lunn on an Improvised Musical in a Weekend.
Ten improvisers worked together from Friday night until Sunday evening , then put on a improvised musical. And it was great. Really, really good, much better than I ever imagined. A lot of fun yes, but also, very high quality. Partly because Phil and Katy are great, but also I think, because doing the whole thing in a weekend avoided a Big Trap that companies fall into.
Improvisers often only rehearse once a week. For two hours, or maybe three. We meet in an evening, chat a bit about the next gig, then warm up in the way we always do, and then do the exercises or games we always do. And that leads to stasis. The brain loves to form habits, walking the same route, always shaving in the same order. It reduces the load on your brain, makes life easier. So the scenes end up with a similar quality. Not the same content, but the same texture, the same types of moves. It’s reassuring and cosy. Oh, yes, you think, that’s what rehearsal is going to be like, and surprise surprise it is. And that’s not very good for the quality of your work. Improvisation requires you to be constantly trying to do the things you are bad at, pushing the boundaries of what your brain can do. And that hurts. It feels risky, unpleasant and just plain upsetting sometimes. It’s not fun to be bad at things.
This weekend we had no time to normalise, get habitual, settle down. There was always another exercise, another scene coming. Shit, we have a show in five hours! We were feeling the burn. Several people mentioned a sensation of being on the verge of getting somewhere, being lost in the work, like what they wanted was just out of reach. I think that’s the feeling of neurons rewiring. Of the level of your skills being raised rather than merely reinforced.
Don’t get me wrong, a weekly rehearsal is normally necessary, and if you are aware of the dangers and specifically aim to combat them, as I hope and believe the Maydays do, it is very valuable. But if you’re a member of a group, try this:
Get everybody’s diaries out, look into the future and find a WHOLE WEEKEND where you can work together, ten till six. Even better, a bank holiday weekend, or a whole week. Make sure EVERYBODY is there for the WHOLE time, and then have dinner one of the evenings. Get an outside eye or a coach for it, and work. Do a whole day of something you never do, get lost and confused, feel like you never did a scene and have no freaking idea how to even start. You’ll be better at improvising after, I promise. (If you’re not a member of a group, just grab four people whose improv you enjoy and do as above.)
And if you’re annoyed you missed this weekend (I have said it before, but it was awesome), don’t worry, The Maydays will be doing it again in the autumn, both in London and in Brighton.