Four years ago, I started learning British Sign Language. I don’t really know why beyond the fact that a few friends had told me in recent years that they were learning and I became insanely jealous. Eventually, after several friends and several bouts of hot green eyes, I got the message and booked a Level 1 course. I didn’t intend at that point to continue for as long as I have, or to have eyes on becoming an interpreter, but I got hooked and now I can’t stop (sound familiar?)
It’s true that I’ve had much the same journey with improv – I took a course because I was scared and thought I’d be bad at it. Now I not only still do it, but regularly perform and have discovered the absolute joy that is teaching improv. Honestly, I really love teaching improv. After a class about a month ago, I was practically skipping down the street and wanted to sing from the rafters about my love of teaching improv. What’s been particularly interesting, is that at the same time I’ve been on the other end as a learner in my BSL journey, and that has in turn given me a new perspective on my teaching. It’s easy to forget the learner experience when teaching a lot, as they are very different perspectives. So here’s a few things I’ve noticed:
1. Failing sucks. This was the most prominent thing I noticed. It sounds obvious, but with all the years of telling people failing is good because it’s either funny or makes us better – I couldn’t apply that knowledge to my actual life. I failed a couple of exams in 2020 which I had to re-take, and I sulked my ass right off. I couldn’t use chairs anymore, because I had no ass. It was gone, I had fully sulked it off. Eventually, I picked myself up, grew a new ass and did the exams again. (Though I once again was left ass-less, for this time I worked it off). I passed but was very embarrassed at my previous behaviour. The truth is, yes failing is good and yes it can be funny and yes it does make us better – but it also sucks.
From a teaching perspective, it’s easy to focus on the ‘failing is good’ idea in warm-up games and when someone (often me) mispronounces a word or sentence in a scene – but it’s the moments when improvisers start to feel that sinking feeling in their stomach mid-scene that really needs attention.
- What’s actually happening?
- Why is this feeling present?
- What positive steps can we take when it happens to us?
- What positive steps can we take when it happens to our scene partner?
- How do we keep our awareness open to notice when it’s happening?
- How do we avoid losing our asses?
2. The significant difference between ‘practise’ and ‘in practice’. In my BSL classes, I get along just fine. I understand the teacher clearly about 80-90% of the time, I understand my classmates, and I feel confident in my signing. I’m upbeat and chatty and always engaged. Cut to me having a conversation with a deaf person (or group of deaf people) outside of class. I am like a confused dog crossed with an interpretive dancer. My flailing limbs start making up signs for things I actually do know how to sign but have somehow escaped my brain in this real-life situation. I panic, I ask for a few repetitions, I get lost in my own brain thinking ‘oh no, I don’t know what we’re talking about, what do I do? OK, don’t panic, try to concentrate on any signs you recognise and piece it together into a sentence…’.
Now, does this feel familiar again? I don’t think I’ve ever felt that level of panic in a rehearsal or class – but on stage? You betcha. Suddenly you aren’t just learning anymore, you’re performing – which can be mistaken for proving but beware for it is not the case! On stage or in an audition, the stakes are suddenly much higher and the idea of ‘proving’ comes into mind. In reality, though, that’s not your job in those situations. Your job is to be you, to do what you know how to do and just get on with it with the same abandon and freedom as in a learning setting. Your team will (should!) support you if anything goes awry. The key to these panic moments are to tune back into what’s happening now. You missed some stuff and feel like a confused dog? That’s ok. Just remember everybody loves dogs. You’re fine. Just tilt the energy to an excited puppy who is having the best day. Perk up those floppy perfect doggy ears and listen to what’s being said & done. You’ll click back in.
From a teaching perspective, it’s a reminder of the importance of recognising this panic of being in a different setting, and talk about and practise it with a group before a showcase or show.
3. You don’t notice your progress as it’s happening. Right now, all I seem to be able to focus on is what I can’t do. How difficult group conversations are with native BSL users, how much I feel I struggle to understand everything when watching See Hear, or anything on BSL Zone. I get annoyed when I forget very basic signs, I look at interpreters and it feels like an impossible goal to get to that point of fluency.
But then I look back to 4 years ago when I started. There’s no way I would have understood what I can understand now. My understanding of the grammar in BSL is so much higher, and the criteria I failed on in my Level 3 are now a natural part of the way I sign without having to think about it. It is starting to sink into my skin and my hands in a way which felt similarly impossible even 2 years ago.
I don’t need to ask if this feels familiar. I’m sure it does. How many times do we as improvisers focus on the people and level we want to be, feeling sad we aren’t there now? Too many! That’s how times! Look back on your journey, how you started, how the first few years felt and the struggles you had. You’ve come a long way. You’re ace-ing it. Focus on all the awesome moments. All the ‘aha’ moments, and joyful scenes/shows/songs – and know that there will be many more to come and that you can only go up from here. We are all on our own journeys and there is no final destination when you’re learning anything. Only progress – the speed of that progress can vary wildly year on year, month on month, show on show – but it is happening. Trust that in a year or two you will look back to now and see how far you’ve come. You don’t need to worry about it right now.
As a teacher, this is again important to remind students of and encourage where they are at now. All students progress at different rates and all need that encouragement to just keep going.
I could also do a parallel explanation as a teacher, which is another learning journey of its own that never ends and is continually full of the same surprises and worries. Whatever you’re learning or teaching, be open to the bumps and celebrations along the way – they will all contribute to your awesome journey.
From The Maydays, Jennifer Jordan.
Jennifer regularly teaches The Maydays Brighton improv comedy drop-ins, monthly Brighton musical improv drop-ins, weekly online musical improv drop-ins and our Business Improv monthly online drop-ins, as well as our 6-week courses. Join her on your learner’s journey soon!