It’s great to get back to working with the Maydays again following the birth of my little boy Magnus. Sleep dep does funny things to your improv; it turns off the over-thinking bit of your brain that tries too hard to be clever and funny, but sends you straight back into your old carefully ironed-out go-tos if you aren’t careful – in my case asking too many questions & always initiating with high-status characters.My new tiny scene partner, 3 months old today, is now starting to enjoy expressing himself (as you can see). He smiled at 4 weeks or so, but it’s only in the last fortnight that he has learnt to laugh, which as an improviser was a milestone I was really looking forward to.
Very cute – but what’s all this baby stuff got to do with improv? Well, being a bit of a perfectionist I am completely unable to just ‘wing it’ with parenting and have been reading a careful selection of books to point me in the right direction. One of these books is interesting for parents and non-parents alike: Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen talks about the importance of children’s play to help them work their stuff out, bond with each other/parents, and generally learn about the world and how to function well within it. There’s loads of great advice about getting stuck into play with kids to help maximise its benefits, remembering to reconnect with them and ultimately fixing things that are malfunctioning in their lives and the modus operandi of the family. It’s also one of those books where you wish you could meet the person that wrote it because they sound really nice and their anecdotes are so heart-warming.
Back to the point: it struck me that actually much of the advice resonated with ideas and techniques we use when teaching adults improv. In the first stages of, say, a beginners’ course we are often just teaching people how to play again after years of striving to appear grown up and sensible, and giving them the space to do this; and I guess it’s not so surprising that students use improv classes as a catalyst to change their lives, and to work through stuff that’s bothering or blocking them, as much as to actually become improvisers.
Certainly improv can be very useful as a therapy – but just as children’s play can become aimless and stuck, or repetetive, or disconnected, or even destructive, so can your improv. For our improv to be alive, vibrant and joyful, we need to strive to stay in a space where it is still challenging but, above all, genuinely playful. Not try-hard playful in an ‘I’m crazy me so I’m going to have a very silly voice and use the word BADGER loads’ way, nor indeed going beserk in a disconnected and ungrounded way – rather, I mean having the sense that, strongly connected to your fellow improvisers, you could go anywhere – you could even end up flying on stage, seamlessly supported by your scene partners. That edge where you are fully engaged in play is scary as well as exhilarating, and it is very easy to lose it to ego, to the comfort of familiar forms, skills or characters, to concentrating on something like the framework of your show (for instance, in a Harold, finding yourself thinking ‘what happened in the last beat?’ is a warning sign). It is natural when you are concentrating hard on mastering something new to lose your sense of play for a bit, but I think it’s really important to make sure that’s temporary.
As I get back into rehearsing I’m going to need to keep all this in mind. I’ve been nervous about ‘catching up’ with the group following the maternity gap: complete with three new Maydays-in-training they have been working together intensively with two specialist improvisers from the US, and they have been developing a brand new show for the Brighton Fringe, ‘The Fringe Show’. I must make sure that I don’t concentrate so hard on getting my skill level and group integration back on spec that I lose the joy. They say that you teach what you need to learn, so here’s some thoughts and ideas for individuals and troupes who feel the need to find the play again. Have fun trying these – any other ideas or suggestions please stick them in a comment.
- Always warm up before rehearsals – use this time to reconnect with each other. There are lots of things you can do, but physical and eye contact is important, as is the chance to have a quick personal verbal catch up on what you’re feeling and what you’ve been doing since the last rehearsal. If you can hang out together after rehearsals and shows, or even better have fun outside of improv (book a booth at a Karaoke bar or go to Laser Quest, or something), then all the better.
- Your warm-ups don’t really need much structure and should be beautiful and silly – here are two examples
1) Lie down in a circle with your heads on each others’ stomachs. Once someone starts laughing, the person’s head on their stomach bobs up and down starting them laughing – it’s great, try it.
2) ‘Kick the can Marco’ – one person shouts out ‘let’s play [insert name of random made-up game here]’ and everyone else shouts ‘yes, let’s’. Without instruction, in freeform style, you find how to play the new game together in the same way that children would – establishing rules and playing until it feels like it’s the right time for someone else to shout out to play a new game.
- Appoint an artistic director and let them be preoccupied with and manage the serious stuff around what you are doing and how well you are doing it. Beyond the ins and outs of artistic development and direction, make sure that things that feel like admin or business gets dealt with in a distinct time slot and preferably entirely separately from your rehearsal.
- Artistic directors: make sure that in your efforts to hone specific skills or crack a specific form the troupe have not lost their playfulness, and if they are in danger of this plan in some sessions purely devoted to getting it back – either by dedicating time to exercises in playfulness and reconnecting, or alternatively by doing something entirely different but that is both scary and fun – like getting in someone to do some improv music coaching if you don’t do singing in your shows, or if you aren’t a particularly physical troupe get a dance instructor in for a session. Sending people off in small groups to come up with some new game or form and then getting everyone back together to do a show and tell is a great one too.
- If you are focussing hard on form, skills or something that’s bothering you whilst improvising, then you’re probably too in your head to have fun. I’ll never forget what Jet Eveleth, one of our teachers from iO in Chicago, said about this: “Your mind has police, your body doesn’t have police – so go with your body”. Get physical.
- Constantly change up what you are focussing on and actively set yourself challenges – be it accents, status, singing, whatever – stay in that ‘scary but exciting’ place. If you find this hard try improvising as impressions of other people – famous people and people you know. It can be secret or you can get people to guess at the end of the rehearsal.
- Inspiration trumps obligation – especially in rehearsal give yourself permission to go for the slightly risky but re
ally fun thing to do, rather than safer options.