How Do You Get Out of an Improv Rut?

I am in improv rut. The last couple of shows I have felt like I’m experiencing improv-vu, doing the same flat, uninspired, boring scenes over and over again. I am pulling the same stock characters out, making the same choices, and I can’t for the life me understand why it’s not going better.

If you’ve been to any of my shows lately, you’ll recognize this. I play a stern, uptight dad who finds out his kids are doing drugs, and then when they admit to it, he tells them to keep doing drugs because it will make them cool. I’ve done this same scene hundreds of times, and it’s not even funny. Why do I keep going back to it?

Of course, when I’m doing this, I’m not listening. I am stream rolling or trying to control the scene. Worse, I do not feel funny, on stage or in my life, and as you can figure out, I am not having any fun. I am not challenging myself, I am going through the motions and watching as other improvisers that I perform with make smart choices, commit emotionally and are vulnerable — all the things I teach in my classes. I must be a fraud! It’s like I am incapable of doing what I have been teaching for years.

I feel like I have lost my edge, and the funny has dried up. I tell myself my improv career is over and that if I was a race horse, I would be headed straight to the glue factory.

How did I get to this place? When I retrace my steps, it is clear I have never been more busy in my career, traveling and teaching and doing Improv Nerd and not leaving any room to have fun. None. Fuck the self-care or taking care of myself. I’ve got to keep moving before all the abundance evaporates. Every artist needs time to just piss away, hang out in a book store for hours or go to a museum or go to lunch with a friend and talk and laugh until the wait staff starts giving you dirty looks because they want you out so they can set up for dinner.

This is different than wasting time. It’s the time you need to creativity re-stock the trout pond. There is no joy in my life, and I am not one of those people who can fake it or manufacture it on stage.  I am “method” when it comes to joy. I need a little in my life to draw from in my improv.

I do not know how to get out of an improv rut. I do know that time usually helps, but, as you know, I don’t have all the answers. So I am open to your feedback. If you have been in an improv rut before and have some experience, strength and hope you would like to offer on this particular issue, I am more than open to it. Actually, I’m desperate. So go ahead, I’m all ears.

There’s still space in Jimmy’s upcoming Intermediate Art of Slow Comedy Class, beginning Saturday, Sept. 13! This class is limited to 10 people, so you’ll get lots of individual attention and stage time. Click here to sign up.

14 replies
  1. Stuart Green
    Stuart Green says:

    Hey Jimmy,
    Travel – Go somewhere where things feel a little different and off-center (but still generally not a criminal hot spot). Improv’s all about living in the unknown – so go somewhere (to you) that is unknown and “allow” yourself to “adjust” or “settle in” to the “scene” of that “environment.” Kind of like your accidental trip a few months ago. And I’ll bet that your Improv felt pretty good after that trip, eh?

    Stuart

    Reply
  2. Dan Maher
    Dan Maher says:

    Hi Jimmy,

    I go through ruts pretty regular. When they happen, I don’t know what causes them. When they disappear, I don’t know what makes them leave. What I do notice is that they will come and that they will go. And even though the feelings ruttiness, of being a hack, of having nothing to share, of wasting my time studying this craft all return again and again, I’m still doing better work than I did in my first 100 shows.

    What helps me is to have a metaphor to focus on. They don’t remove the rut, but they make it more manageable. This one’s my favorite.

    I think about driving on the highway. When I first get off the on-ramp, I’m accelerating to 65MPH. That acceleration feels great. I’m accomplishing something. When I plateau at my top speed, things start to dwindle. I no longer feel the rush of acceleration and driving is a little less exhilarating. I’m still going somewhere at my fastest, but I want to be faster.

    The same is true for improv. When I first start studying, I felt the difference in my play. I felt myself getting better from show to show. But then I hit a plateau. I stopped accelerating. I was doing consistently better than before, but I didn’t feel like I was accelerating. I became used to my speed and every bump in the road resonated like a condemnation in my ability. I wanted to be faster so as to blur out those bumps.

    It helps to focus on this idea that I’ll eventually accelerate again, I’ll go faster, be better; I’ll perform with the beauty, grace, and intelligence I need to win an audience’s approval, to win my own approval. That’s my hope and my faith in improv. It carries me in the weak moments. It inspires me to press on when I want to quit it for good.

    I hope that helps. It at least helped me to write it.

    Thanks,
    Dan

    Reply
  3. Matt Harbert
    Matt Harbert says:

    Hi Jimmy,

    I think you hit it when you said you need to take care of yourself. Some of your self-critique almost sounds like beating up on yourself. I think these slumps everyone goes through go in between “improv technique” and just taking care of one’s overall self esteem outside of the improv world.

    I know that I get frustrated about doing the same types of scenes over and over, and what I try to do is initiate types of scenes I don’t normally do. For example I rarely start a scene in a fantastic world (pirate, spaceship, not-everyday-life) – so if I feel stale, I will listen for an opportunity to not just be another job interview or date. Hope this helps, I myself am feeling a bit rutty lately, so you’re not alone!

    Matt

    Reply
  4. Mike Rhodes
    Mike Rhodes says:

    I hide in a strong archetypal character. Like, something pop-cultural that you know. If you’re being a depressing bummer, be a Batman. Use and amplify your shitty negative energy instead of avoiding it or forcing yourself into something you’re not feeling. Does that make sense? Shoot me an email, this is an interesting topic!

    Reply
  5. Amin
    Amin says:

    Hi Jimmy. I think that the points you have laid out here are a pretty good starting place for recharging your improv brain. I think remembering to have fun, on and off stage, is crucial to enjoyable improv.

    I’m a young improviser who just finished up his time on a high school team. In that setting, maybe unless you’re one of the captains, you probably don’t get enough performance experience to feel repetitive or notice trends in the way you do things.

    At least not onstage. I do, however, remember having been in a rut during practices last fall. It seemed like none of the lessons I’d learned about improv were sticking, and that all of my choices earned criticism. It had been nearly a year since I had been in a show even though I kept coming to practice and trying to improve.

    When I finally played, after a day and eleven months of “hiatus” (though to be fair, there was summer and a smaller performance in between), I was really proud of myself.

    What really helped me keep myself afloat despite all of the doubt and nervousness was spending time with people. Getting together to write stories, having a Halloween party, having dinner with some friends before the show, brightened up what was a really stressful week.
    I think when that last year ended, I had a lot of potential, but wasn’t really doing anything with it until late October. So if you feel like you’re not using your potential, try connecting with that fun side again. Trying to have fun will lead to better results on stage than trying to impress people.

    Reply
  6. Louis Hirsch
    Louis Hirsch says:

    I remember you saying and it may be in your book as well”that if you don’t have a life outside improv then you don’t have anything to Improvise about” so true. Other things I do to get out of improv ruts. Go on stage with a different shape or form then you usually have. Play with people you haven’t played with before.And feel not think. If your spending to much time thinking on stage it’s time to do a few things that have nothing to do with improv for awhile.
    as always thanks for reminding me I am not alone in whatever issues I am having on stage.

    Reply
  7. Asli Ors
    Asli Ors says:

    Hi Jimmy,
    Your vulnerable, truthful writings has been shedding bright lights on my improv journey. When I am in my head, sometimes I find myself thinking what would Jimmy say? An answer appears, weight lifts off. Ahhh, ok, I just need to be present at this moment, here and now and ditch expectations. So thank you! I shall meet you in person one day…

    I recently traveled to my home country Turkey for 2 weeks. Got disconnected from emails and facebook and felt there was more space opened up in my brain. More space provided more patience, curiosity, observation and happiness. Now I am back to information land, back to work, back to responsibilities… I feel the same way you do in “real” world and I see improv as an escape to my la la land. But, I want to be feel alive other times in “real” world, too so i picked up a 20 day yoga and meditation practice. Every day little by little. I am teaching my brain to be more happy. Also, just started reading: Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace). Last but not least, Why intelligent life hasn’t contacted us: Peter Mulvey at TEDxKC reminds me that we are here only for a blink of an eye so better enjoy and cherish every experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNGUkdovn_8#t=13

    OK, that’s it for now. Smiles and virtual hugs.

    Reply
  8. Tim Dufrisne
    Tim Dufrisne says:

    I went through something like this a while ago and I ended up taking a year off of improv all together; no shows, no classes. It was the best thing I could have done. First, I refilled the trout pond, as you put it, and second, I started really missing it. When I came back, I felt like a whole new performer. I’m not saying you should take a whole year off, but a little time away to give you some perspective might be just the ticket.

    Also, in terms of the stock characters and situations you find yourself going back to, I would suggest writing those out into a sketch or a play or even a humorous “shouts and murmurs” style essay or short story. Worst case scenario it sucks and you don’t show it to anyone but at least you got it out of your system so it doesn’t keep invading your improv. Best case scenario, you produce a play or a short film or some other product that will help with your career and give you another creative outlet.

    Best of luck. I love improv nerd.

    Reply
  9. Betzi
    Betzi says:

    Hi Jimmy! First let me say that I love Improv Nerd and look forward to it every week. Second, I believe that in order to practice or perform any art well, you need time to yourself alone, every week. Julia Cameron calls it an Artist Date and I think its essential for refilling the creative well. (Hard to be joyful when your well is dry) In addition to this, socializing with people who uplift you and love you seems very helpful. As far as what to do in the moment of a rut, sometimes I just stop and do the exact opposite of my rut. For instance, playing manic and low status is my go-to when nervous. If I catch myself about to go there again, I will play uber-chill. Other times, I decide to mimic or copy another improvisers playing style that differs greatly from my own. (Especially folks I admire) This gets me out of my head because I’m not being me–I’m being them. Cheers! Betzi

    Reply
  10. Dylan
    Dylan says:

    Hello Jimmy !

    When this happens for me, which is a LOT, I like to spend a whole afternoon watching very “random” TV shows like American Dad, The Simpsons, or Community.

    This way it influences my mind to “connect” random things together, which in turn creates crazy, unpredictable stories !

    This is the base of humor : surprise. I suppose being in an “improv rut” simply means “always connecting the same things together” and, therefore, making always the same choices. By getting out of this logic and training your mind to connect different random things together, you get back on track !

    Reply
  11. Brian Crane
    Brian Crane says:

    Jimmy,

    I’m a little late entering the conversation, but I just read your post and I have two suggestions.

    First – You know your craft and you have the answers. Write a column/entry/letter to yourself in response to your problem. Channel that part of you that has that huge amount of expertise and compassion. You would do this for someone else, no? Do it for yourself. If you don’t come up with a practical solution, at least you’ll alleviate some of the pressure.

    Second – On a more practical note – listen more, and play low status more. Both will take the pressure off. if you’re uncertain and doubting your choices on stage, can you allow your characters to be uncertain as well? If you’re playing that father who finds out his kids are doing drugs, what if the father doesn’t know how to deal with it? What if he’s uncertain? That is to say – don’t make shit up. Don’t force it. Just listen. Listen like a shrink would listen. Don’t offer a solution, just listen.

    More emphasis on the “yes” and less on the “and”

    “Dad, I’m doing Drugs”
    “Jeez, son, I don’t know what to say.”
    “Meth during the week, heroin on Sundays”
    “I just don’t know. “
    “Acid on Friday night.”
    “Oh.”

    This might feel like a cop-out, like you’re not contributing to the scene, like you’re placing the burden on your scene partner (and you are, a little) but you’re giving yourself and your partner a chance to discover who this father is. Try to tune in to how it feels to not have the answers (both as the actor and the character) Do you feel guilty for not having the answer for your son? Or guilty that you’re not carrying your weight in the scene? Play that. Embarrassed? Play that. Annoyed that you even have to come up with a solution? Play that.

    It sort of absolves you of any responsibility other than listening and paying attention to how it feels, and at the same time offers the chance to create a strong character that might resonate with how you really feel. And I suggest low status because it just seems easier.

    This may not get you out of the rut – a rut is a rut – but it’s something to try.

    I hope this is of some help.

    Brian

    Reply

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