Columbus Unscripted

How To Know If You Should Pursue Improv Seriously

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From time to time, a fan of this blog or the podcast will contact me directly and ask me an improv-related question. Recently, I received a question about how to know if you should pursue improv seriously, and I decided to share it because it’s something I believe everyone in improv, comedy and acting has probably struggled with, regardless of what age they were when they started.

Q: I have a question that may be rather presumptuous and reeking of a quarter-life-crisis, but I thought you might have some advice that could help me or others. I recently graduated with a liberal arts degree. I became involved in comedy halfway through college, and I’ve left wanting to pursue improv and acting seriously, but I have a constant, nagging feeling that I fundamentally lack the capability to do it. While it may be true that I could benefit from taking more classes, I have an anxious/alcoholic mind that is constantly trying to convince me that I am worthless and that my dreams are unrealistic. It’s hard to even know where and how to start with these feelings casting a shadow over everything I think about doing. I don’t want to let this anxiety dictate my ability to perform. How do you find the resilience to pursue improv and the things you love in your life? Any advice is appreciated.

A: The fact that you are asking me this question gives me a clue as to the answer. It sounds to me like you love doing improv and acting and are clear you would like to pursue it more seriously. So I say, trust your instincts and jump right into the deep end of what you are passionate about right now in your life. Who knows? You may do improv/acting for a couple of years and be like, “I am done,” or you may become a lifer or end up SNL. You will not know until you try.

I cannot think of a better time to throw yourself into improv/acting than right after college when you still have so much energy. If you’re afraid that pursuing improv or acting will delay your “real career,” just know that whatever you learn in improv and acting will never be wasted. The credits transfer to life, and the skills that you will learn will apply to any future career choice. Look at those years you pursue acting and improv as grad school. Got it? OK, let’s move on.

Now, let’s look at your insecurities. I want you to know that I can relate to them all.

In terms of feeling that you “fundamentally lack the capacity to do it,” at this point, with your limited experience, you do not have enough information to make that determination. Sorry about that, but the truth is it takes at least three or four years of studying improv and doing shows on a consistent basis to know if you’re really good at it, and that’s a conservative estimate. So when you start taking classes, beside having a great time and learning, remember you are gathering information about your skills that will help you make you an educated decision about whether it’s worth pursuing for the long haul.

Also, be open and be flexible. You may start doing improv and find you like acting more, or you may be drawn to doing stand-up or sketch. You don’t know where it’s going to take you. The clarity you are looking for will come from taking the action and signing up for a class. Baby steps here.

OK, now my favorite part: the anxiety/alcoholic mind. My brain is wired the exact same as yours, and in my experience, my insecurities about my abilities as an improviser and actor have never completely gone away. Even after doing it for more than 30 years, there are still lots of times when I tell myself that I suck and that I should quit. My brain compares myself to others and comes up short. It makes me jealous of other people’s success. It tells me I’m getting worse, not better, and that I am wasting my time. But ultimately, I keep doing improv because deep down I love it, and I need to express myself in spite of my fears and insecurities. And luckily, the more I do it, the less power these fears have over me.

Feelings cannot be avoided or swept under the rug. We need to feel our feelings. That is what fuels art. Yes, this is by far the most painful part of the creative process and the most necessary one, not only as improvisers and actors, but as people. By pursuing improv and facing your insecurities, rather than choosing a “safer” career path, you will actually have the chance to heal the shame and anxiety you feel and to reduce the size of the shadow you talk about.

In terms of resilience, mine has come from the help of others. A lot of times when I feel like I want to quit, I call my support peeps and they encourage me to get back on the horse. To thrive, you will need a shitload of support. If that means you need to get into individual or group therapy, do it, because you deserve it. If you need more friends who are emotionally supportive of your dreams, go out and find them right now. Build a strong support network, and when you have doubts and fear that you’re going fail, they will have your back. Sound familiar? (Warning: They may not be the same people who have your back on stage.)

I am not going to sugarcoat it: Pursuing improv and acting is not an easy path. It’s very difficult at times. You not only have to deal with your insecurities and your fragile ego, but you also have to deal with other people’s insecurities and even more fragile egos.

I hope I am not the last word on the subject. I would love to hear your input on how you find your resilience to continue to pursue improv? Please let me know. I can use all the inspiration on the matter as I can get.

Want to try a new approach to improv? Jimmy’s next Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 starts May 23! Early bird deadline ends May 9. Sign up today!

9 replies
  1. Louis Hirsch
    Louis Hirsch says:

    My answer.Let’s be honest if all you want to do is improv. I mean the pure thing and not Imporv made into sketch or acting Or “improvised” video or movies. You chances of making a living doing it our zero or extremely close. You can make some money teaching others to do improve if you develop a good enough reputation. Or you can can get into sketch (think SNL, Second City) or you can expand to commercials, voice overs and real acting. So if you want to pursue improv as an art forget about making a living at it. it will be your avocation not your vocation. If you want to be a performer(someone who creates product) and do sketch ,acting etc. and you truly love it by all means pursue it as a career, knowing the odds are against you ever being able to make a living at it but there is at least a chance. Just my humble opinion. Others are free to differ

    Reply
  2. Steven Gomez
    Steven Gomez says:

    The key is to recognize those doubts, fears, insecurities, etc are never going to leave you, and you need to get used to jumping in and doing improv despite them. I still feel them today, but the difference between day one and now is I hear/feel/receive them and I move ahead any damn way.

    Once you get used to facing the risk and fear and discomfort of doing it despite a lack of confidence, you’ll start to have fun doing it, and you’ll probably turn a corner not just in improv but with the rest of your life.

    Reply
  3. George Rosebrock
    George Rosebrock says:

    If I could offer some thoughts: I grew up watching Second City performances since high school. I saw so many wonderful performers and performances and really thought that improv was what I wanted to do. I put it off and eventually had to go to work and make a living and forge a career. After I retired at 54 I went back to Second City and took classes. Then I met Jimmy and took more classes. I love it. My advice is to jump in head first but promise yourself it is only for one year. At the end of the one year you review and make a decision to keep going or quit. Now you have one year to throw yourself into improv 100 percent. A total effort for the year will give you your answer. Time marches on-better to try and fail than to not try and regret it. Good luck!

    Reply
  4. Jordan Weimer
    Jordan Weimer says:

    Just wanted to chime in and say, thank you again for making this blog and sharing your experiences. I’m a naturally self critical person and even though I’ve never had you as a teacher in reality, your stories have profoundly helped me to know that my inner voice that tells me I suck is just a thing. Just an irrevocable part of people… even the successful ones. Thanks Jimmy.

    Reply
  5. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I relate to this one. I’d love to pursue it more, but I don’t think I’m going to make a team at my school and there’s well, nowhere else to go. I really like the school, I’m just in the middle and there’s so many good people out there and clearly I am not a standout enough to get on a team.

    Sigh. Well, you gotta accept reality.

    Reply
    • Tracy
      Tracy says:

      Jennifer! Do not let the fear that you “aren’t good enough” stop you from pursuing something you love. First of all, everybody thinks that, so there’s no way of knowing if it’s actually true. Secondly, the world needs more female improvisers, so that’s an extra reason to keep pursuing it (and may ultimately give you an advantage). Third, being “good” is overrated, especially when it comes to being on a school team. Enthusiasm, dedication, and a willingness to work hard and take notes are just as important (if not more so). Finally, even if you audition for the team and don’t make it, you don’t have to give up on improv. Find one or two other people to practice with and do that for a while. If you’re a young person and you care about improv enough to be reading blogs about it, you’ve got what it takes. You can make it happen.

      Reply
  6. Tony Rossi
    Tony Rossi says:

    This is beautiful. I resonate with so much of this, Jimmy. I actually was taking improv classes and was half way through Conservatory at Second City when I realized that theatre was what I ultimately wanted. But what I love about what you wrote is that *action* informs us of what’s next. Couldn’t agree more. Thank you for sharing this with us!

    Reply

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