10 Off-Stage Tips To Becoming a Better Improviser
Students ask me all the time, “What can I work on during the week between improv classes to become a better improviser?”
My answer is work on your life. Improv is a very transparent art form, and the more you have a rich, full life, the more you will be able to bring that onto the stage. So here are 10 things you can work on outside of improv classes that will make you a better improviser, some of which have nothing to do with improvising.
1. Break your daily routine. Find at least one thing to do differently every day. If you always take a shower in the morning, one day try a bath. If you always drive to work, take public transportation. If you’ve never tried Indian food, try Indian food. Your goal here is to try new experiences. If you can start doing that in your life, you increase your chances on taking chances on stage.
2. Write. Write a poem, write a blog, write a scene, write a short story, write in a journal, just write. Writing will help you put your thoughts together and help you with your dialogue when you go to improvise.
3. Take off a night, or two. Improv can be addictive, especially if you are running around town doing shows and going to rehearsals and improv classes seven days a week with no time to yourself. As we said in Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser, your job as an improviser is to reflect life, and if you don’t have one outside of improv, you have nothing to draw from and you’ll be creatively bankrupt. Look at your week and designate at least one night as your night off, and if you really want to get good, designate two.
4. Take care of yourself. If you want to take care of your art, you have to start by taking care of yourself. Get enough sleep, exercise and sunlight. Eat right and drink lots of water. Though this stuff seems obvious, a lot of improvisers I know stay up late, are stuck indoors, eat pizza and drink too much beer. Being great at improvising takes a lot of physical and emotional energy, so you need to take care of your body. Don’t use up all of your energy at the bar after a show.
5. Have connection with the outside world. Improv can be all-consuming. Did you ever have a friend who every time they started dating someone would blow off your friendship and stop calling until they broke up with the person? You don’t want to be that person. Being friends with normal people outside of improvisers will help keep you grounded and give you perspective, and you’ll feel less like have joined a cult.
6. Always look for inspiration. If our job as improvisers is to inspire, we need to be inspired. We cannot give away what we don’t have. When was the last time you went to a movie or a play? Or rented a movie or read a novel or short stories? Creatively, you want to keep filling yourself up like a pitcher of water until you are over-flowing with inspiration.
7. Do something nice for someone. If you haven’t noticed, improv is filled with a lot of dysfunctional people. Most of us come from dysfunctional families so we don’t have much self-esteem. The way to build self-esteem, I’ve been told, is to do esteemable acts. They don’t have to be grand; just give someone a smile, a compliment or a ride home after a show.
8. Ask your way to the top. Another side effect of coming from dysfunctional households is that we improvisers often think we are a piece of shit and we don’t deserve anything. We are afraid to ask for anything. Instead, we’re like mice grateful for the crumbs on the floor. We deserve more. To get it, start asking for what you want without worrying about the results. Let go of the results and just practice asking. Ask to be on a team, or for an audition, or to go out to with someone for lunch. Warning: Shame will come up, followed by self-confidence.
9. Learn to say ‘No’. Improvisers become master of yes and… on stage. In life, they say yes for the wrong reasons: out of fear, or because they think they are going to miss that next big thing, whatever that is. Sure, it’s an honor to be asked to be in a show, but that doesn’t mean you have to say yes to every show. Your time is valuable, but until you start respecting it, no one else will. If you start saying “No” to the things you don’t want to do, you create more space for the things you really do want to do.
10. Get outside help. As we wrote in Improvising Better, if all else fails, get outside help. A lot of improvisers have insecurities about their performing abilities and about their talents. These are the things that will block them on stage. Improvising will only take you so far with healing this part of you. If you look to your improv class or your team hoping for validation, you’re sunk because the problem is much deeper. If you are struggling with thinking you are not good enough, or any other issue that may be blocking you from your full potential, get into therapy, a 12-step group, or group therapy. As you get help with your issues, you’ll bring more honesty and confidence to the stage.