Spirit of the Staircase

A black and white image of a winding staircase partly in shadow

Spirit of the Staircase –  the agony of this imperfect artform


Oh improv, you wild and beautiful beast. A playground for the creators and the dreamers; a refuge for the perfectionists and the overthinkers because it is a place where you can only be truly present. Where you can only be in the here and now; witnessing, responding instinctively and letting it go into the night air. 


It’s an exciting art form to be involved in. No one knowing what’s going to happen, but all the right things happen and it all comes together. It’s magic and it’s unpredictable and it explodes like one fantastic supernova, never to be seen again!


There’s ‘nothing that can be wrong in improv’, ‘everything we do is right’. We teach it, we preach it, we play it. Yes to each offer. Yes to each instinct. Yes, that was the right move because that was the only move. Pow!


Perfect place for overthinkers. You can’t overthink onstage. It happens too fast. Just go. 


Trouble is, you can afterwards. 


The thinking may creep in: “ahhh if only I’d done that…. said that instead, the plot would have been tied up nicely….  I should have sung a bridge where I showed my character’s alternative point of view, it would have been much more rounded….why did I not just make her my mother, that would have made sense.… if only I’d not forgotten about the key that was mentioned in the first beat then I could have used that for the….. bla blah blah…”. oh jesty christ. 


Yes, the beauty of improv is that it happens there and then. 

The pain of it is that it can never be fixed.


I’ve lain awake many a night, rehashing a show and wishing I’d done it another way. Having the perfect answer that would have solved the hole in the plot that would’ve made it all perfect. I have the genius idea later. On the train. While I’m cleaning my teeth. At 3 am with a hot sweat in bed. Bollocks. 


It has a beautiful name, this feeling: ‘L’esprit de l’escalier’ – The Spirit Of The Staircase. 


A French phrase encapsulating the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply when the moment has passed. One would leave a party and realise what witty thing they should have said, as they reach the bottom of the stairs. But it is then too late. 


I talked about this to my non-improv boyfriend as I had a post-show facepalm over breakfast (I know! Still thinking about it over breakfast. Let it go, baby!) He didn’t seem surprised that it happened – we’re all just making it up on the fly. Some people actually sit down to write, edit and refine good stories, so surely a little post-performance regret is bound to come in. 


What he was surprised about was that it’s not a hot topic amongst improvisers. We don’t really talk about it. When improvisers talk, we talk about how fun it is. How great it is. How right every choice is. We don’t talk about how fuckin’ awful it feels when you realise what you should have done but you just can’t fix it. You can’t change it. That audience will never know that the better motive for my character to kill Karen was because she was planning a merger with her rival. That would have been infinitely better than the waffly bullshit that came out of my mouth in a panic. Yet that is the show they saw. They don’t know how brilliant it could have been if I’d just had a little more time to work it out!


The Maydays, Liz Peters screams into the camera, her hair is windswept and partially covering her face, wearing a beige v-neck jumper

None of us ever talk about it. I wish we did, It would be good to know if I was alone in my late-night nobbling of myself! I don’t think I’m alone. But improv can be a very smiley happy-clappy place.  The darkness gets pushed aside, the negativity sometimes hidden. But it’s there. In an art form that can never be perfect, it can always be better. Every choice is not the right choice. Much as we teachers love to pretend that it is (it’s a way of getting us to be more spontaneous and more relaxed by removing the inner critic, and it allows us to develop our collaborative skills). The reality is some choices ARE better than other choices. And often my better choices come after the show. Too slow. Boo. 


Much as I’d like to give you the answer on how to avoid l’esprit de l’escalier, I cannot. I think it is natural.  When the pressure is off the answer comes. Like when you’ve been ruminating a problem, the answer may come when you take a break or a walk. It rarely comes when you’re squinting at the spreadsheet. 


So I can only use my own humble experience as a guide if this does happen to you (and if it does, let me know so I don’t feel so damn lonely about this!) These are the things I think can help. 


1 Be as present as possible when you’re onstage. Breathing, softening the body, opening your attention and making sure you’re at your best most capable and responsive self. That is ALL you can be at that moment. And then hopefully you’ll flow some good choices. 


2 Move your body. Shake it off. Have a dance or go for a run so your body can discharge the negative feeling. Realise that life is short and most people won’t remember the show. Memories are all tiny fabricated bits of perception stacked on top of each other anyway. No memory is truly accurate. And the audience isn’t picking up every tiny point, they’re part of the ride too.


3 Remind yourself of some good moments that happened. Let them take up more space in your memory bank of the show. 


4 Get back on the horse. Play again. Absorb the learning and get better at improvising so you can have more joyous flow onstage and sweeter dreams afterwards. 


L’esprit de l’escalier. The spirit of the staircase.

What goes up can surely go down.  

We are improvisers and our craft is imperfect. C’est le jeu!


by Liz Peters

  1. Mary Adams

    Moi aussi!!

  2. Henry Hyde

    What a great post. I’m only learning improv at the moment but you sun up perfectly the ‘morning after’ moments I’ve experienced.

    I love the lessons (with Jenny Rowe) because of the immediacy, those electrifying moments of being there, on the spot and often astonished at what has just come out of my mouth or the playground poses my body has adopted.

    But there’s also the post-play perfectionism, a constant battle for someone like me who has spent most of their life struggling with their inner critic.

    In the end, just as with everything else my therapy has taught me, the fact is that it was “good enough”, and It’s an act of courage to even attempt the form at all when most people panic at the very idea of improv (including my therapist!). Be proud that you stepped forward, opened your mouth and that _anything_ coherent emerged.

    I realise that there’s a parallel with something else I love: watercolour painting, another art form where there’s no going back. Unlike oils, which you can scrape back or daub over for hours, days even, watercolours are merciless. So you learn to live with whatever arrives on the paper and work with it. Some of the best passages in a painting can be pure accidents, the serendipity of paint, water and paper interacting randomly.

    So be proud of what you do, Liz. Your experience, practice and courage mean that you’re more often at the top of the stairs rather than the bottom.

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