How to stay inspired when your improv career feels stuck

If you’ve been acting or improvising for a while, you’ve probably learned that success as a performer always seems to ebb and flow. If your improv career is in a dry spell right now and you haven’t been landing any auditions and no one is asking you to be in their show, it’s easy to just sit around feeling depressed.

But as any successful actor or improviser will tell you, if you want to make it in stand-up, acting, or improv, you have to constantly work at growing your career and creating new opportunities for yourself. If you’re feeling stagnant, it’s important to find ways to get inspired so you can get your drive back. Here are a few ways to get your creativity flowing again when your improv career hits a lull:

Take a Class

One of the best, easiest and first things that you can (and should) do to refocus your acting or improv career is to take an acting class or an improv class. Classes will not only help you re-learn the ins and out of the craft by teaching you valuable skills, but you will also get a ton of practice working with other people who have the same interests and desires that you do, which can lead to some great friendships and potential creative partnerships. Plus, classes are fun! Remember, no matter how experienced you are, the first place to go when you’ve hit a wall is back to the basics.

Perform at Open Mic Night

Another great way to re-ignite your improv career is to find an open mic night. Whether you want to put together a new stand-up routine, try your hand at storytelling, or want to perform a short sketch with a new fellow actor or improviser (possibly from one of your classes), open mics are a great way to get yourself up on stage and continue to work on your performance. Jumping in and performing a new bit for a new crowd will give you plenty of practice and a chance to perfect your acting or improv abilities. A lot of places that host open mic nights offer them from week to week, so you’ll have multiple opportunities to work on your sketch or performance. You can and should utilize the feedback you get from the audience to help you grow.

Go to a Play

Another way to get inspired is to see a show in town. This is something that you should be doing regardless of your stage in your career because you will always benefit from watching others perform. It can really spark something in you when you see a moving performance live! It’s a great escape from the every day and takes you into a different world, while also re-igniting your own passion for performing. You can take away some great ideas, and maybe even think about what you would do as a director or performer in the show you’ve watched — it gets your brain going when you can map out some of the things you would do differently in terms of staging, lighting, performance, and so on. You can even take some of those ideas and utilize them in your own acting or improv class!


Writing is a great way to get your ideas and thoughts out. Studies actually show that when you write something down you’re more likely to follow through with it. It can also be extremely helpful if you’re having trouble with performing on stage because it gets those creative juices flowing in a different, less public way. Try keeping a journal handy so that when inspiration strikes, you have a place to write things down that you can utilize on stage. For instance, if someone has a mannerism that you find intriguing or even a personality trait or physical aspect that interests you, feel free to jot it down quickly as something useful for a character. Or you can write your own sketches, ideas for a TV pilot, storytelling pieces and more. By reconnecting with your creativity and letting a story come forth, you’re also improving your improvisation abilities.

Record a Video

Want another way to get your creative juices flowing? Try turning to video. You can get some friends together to film some sketches, try to make a viral video, or just record you and your friends doing a scene together. The videos don’t have to be professionally shot with an expensive camera, either. Just go ahead and record the videos on an iPhone. The videos can just be for fun, or, if you really love them, maybe they’ll be the impetus for creating a longer TV pilot or web series!

Listen to an Acting/Improv Podcast

One of the final things you can do to inspire you in your improv or acting career is to listen to a podcast. There are numerous acting and improv-related podcasts out there, and if you have iTunes or an iPhone, it’s easy to listen to the expertise of your peers (and it’s free!). Podcasts can give you insider information along with helpful tips and tricks of the trade. And you can listen to one at any time of the day, whether it’s in your car, at your job, at the gym, etc. Most of the episodes are relatively short and are packed with a lot of great tools for you to try. Some great ones we recommend are Improv Nerd (duh), Improv 4 Humans, WTF, Inside Acting, Off Camera and more.

There are multiple ways to re-ignite your career in acting or improv. The key is not to let your dreams of performing fade; your love of the stage should be cultivated and kept new and relevant within your life, always!

Donna Mauer is an aspiring actor and improviser living in New York City who has a love for all things Broadway. She currently studies at The Lee Strasberg Institute and is an active contributor on various theater and film blogs.


Want another way to get inspired again? Sign up for Jimmy’s Two-Person Scene Tune-Up, happening Dec. 30. Only $79 when you register by Dec. 14!

5 Things To Make You More Creative

Recently, I read a wonderful article by Madeline Wolfson about award-winning playwright, actor, and sometimes improviser Tracy Letts. In it, he gave 10 pieces advice on how to live a more creative life. I liked it so much, I have included the link.

Now, I’m no Tracy Letts, but I like to think I’m a pretty creative guy. So after reading his list, I was inspired to come up with my own list of five things that make me more creative.

  1. Talk to yourself
    There are two things that I really enjoy while driving a car: one is picking my nose, and the other is talking to myself. Picking my nose has nothing to with my creativity, but talking to myself does. In fact, I talk to myself on a daily basis. I cannot think of a better place to work on characters, or an acceptance speech for winning an Emmy or being interviewed by Howard Stern than when I’m alone in the car.
  2. Go on a walk
    My brain seems to just flow when I am out there walking in the fresh air. It is even better when I can find the time to walk in nature. I have also found that taking a walk is another great place to talk to myself (see the pattern?). Although being outside helps me the most, I’ve found doing anything physical – dancing, working out at the gym, etc. — can get my brain going.Sometimes in class when I see a student stuck on stage and they can’t get the words out during an improv scene, I will ask them to move their body, and when they do the dialogue comes out like water out of a fire hose.
  3. Take a shower or a bath
    I can’t explain this one, but it’s been amazing how many great ideas have come to me by taking a hot shower or sitting in the warm water of the bath tub. They just do. I don’t need to over explain this one, it’s pretty simple.
  4. Meditate
    Each morning, I meditate for 15 to 20 minutes, and I can’t tell you how important this is to my creative process. It not only clears my mind before I start the day, but it also reminds me to listen. Creativity is as much about expressing your own ideas as it is about listening to your muse, or other people, or the silence, and meditating makes me more open to doing all three.
  5. Bounce ideas off other people
    Creativity does not happen in a vacuum. I need other people for inspiration. So whether I’m reaching out to another person whom I respect for feedback, or I’m asking my wife, Lauren, to be an audience to see where the jokes land, I walk away with ideas to make my work better and to improve my confidence. Find safe, supportive people whom you respect to bounce ideas off of.

Do you have any other ideas for ways you can boost your creativity? Share them in the comments below.

Always wanted to study improv with Jimmy Carrane? Now is your chance! Only 4 spots left in his Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting Feb. 17. Sign up today!



Going Outside of Improv To Get Better At Improv

Lately, I have been trying my hand at stand-up and storytelling, doing some open mics around the city. So far, the results have been mixed, but where I am starting to see it pay off is in my improv.

Doing things outside of improv only makes you a better improviser. A lot of times I think that when I’m in a rut or have had a series of bad improv shows, the answer is to force a solution and just work harder. But the truth is, more improv doesn’t necessarily make me better. Sometimes it makes it worse. That is when I need to go out and do something that brings me joy so I won’t put so much pressure on myself when I’m doing improv.

I need to remember that it’s important to be filled up creatively, not only for my improv, but also for my teaching, and if you ask my wife, my life. Yes, I am easier to be around when I am creatively fulfilled. Having another creative outlet gives me more to give to my classes, to my scene partners on stage and to the audience, as well.

For me, I feel creatively fulfilled when I’m expressing myself, and sometimes improv can do that for me and sometimes it can’t. Any art form has its limits, and I get in trouble when I think I can get all of my needs met in one place. That is when I get stuck and frustrated.

That is what was starting to happen. Most of the time when I was doing a live version of Improv Nerd, I was making it life or death. I was putting way too much pressure on myself – all because I wasn’t allowing myself to have enough fun in the rest of my life. My whole life was serious, so my improv became serious, too.

Then this summer, I decided to take a stand-up class at the Lincoln Lodge. I spent time writing my set and perfecting my delivery. This led me to doing a few storytelling events at The Abbey Pub, Louder Than a Mom, and Surprise Party. And suddenly, out of nowhere, improv started to feel fun again, and isn’t that the point of all of this stuff anyway?

This past Sunday I had one of the best times I’ve had at an Improv Nerd show in a long time. Then after the show, I had to drive to Second City to celebrate the third year anniversary of a little improv show called “Jimmy and Johnny” that I do with the super talented John Hildreth. Each month we ask a special guest to join us to improvise. Our guest this time was one of my favorite people to improvise of all time: Susan Messing. We have known each other for more than 25 years and I love her. Of course, those two were great as always, and even though I thought I was a bit off, I had a blast working with them.

I actually came home that night feeling invigorated and, dare I admit it, happy. (No, not a typo or misprint. You read it right, happy.) That was the direct effect of me finding a way to fill my need for creativity outside of improv. Now, I just have to keep remembering it.

Don’t forget to get a copy of Jimmy’s new book, The Inner Game of Improv! Now available as a PDF or for Kindle at Amazon.

5 Ways to Boost Your Creativity on Stage

Have you ever had the experience where you were creatively stuck on stage? Either you opened your mouth and nothing came out, or worse, you just kept talking and the scene just went nowhere?

When that happens, it’s like going into a black hole. But luckily, there are some things we can do on stage in the moment to kick start our creativity.

My friend, Megon McDonough, is a singer and voice teacher who tells her students that the right brain wants you to be creative. It wants you to sing loud, let go, and be free. The left brain, on the other hand, wants to organize things. It wants to be in control and be logical. So if you are up on stage and you’re just standing there, the left brain will override the right brain and immediately shut down all creativity.

To help let go of inhibitions, Megon tells her students to give the left brain something to do. She’ll have them move their hand like a puppet or walk backwards while they’re singing – something to occupy the left brain so the right brain is freed up to do its job and be more creative.

It’s the same reason why we get our most creative ideas when we’re doing something else, like taking a shower, driving a car or taking a walk. What we want is to duplicate this process on stage.

Here are some tips I have learned to help you keep your left brain occupied so you can access more creativity on stage:

1. Use an object
It’s simple and often ignored, but starting an improv scene with the environment or an object is a great way of distracting your left brain from having to say the right thing. The next time you enter a scene, start by using an object (moving a large box or tuning a guitar), or by doing an activity (washing dishes, cleaning the litter box).

2. Begin with a strong emotion
Starting dialogue without an emotion can put you in your head, where the left brain will take over. Instead, start with a strong emotion (happy, sad, afraid, angry). By focusing on the emotion, your left brain will be kept busy while your right brain can just go crazy.

3. Do something physical
Just like in Megon’s vocal exercises using a hand puppet, by starting with a physical choice at the top of an improv scene will help free up your right brain to have more fun. For example, if player A says: “Your mother called,” player B can react physically by letting out a sound like “ERRRR-RR-R!” and punching her fist in the air.

4. Adjust your body position
Again, this is so simple that improvisers often forget it. Instead of simply standing on stage, try hunching down, rapidly blinking your eyes, or standing with your shoulders wide. All of these things can lead you to a different way of looking at the world and create dialogue that will surprise you.

5. Just move
Sometimes opening up creativity is as easy as moving more on stage. Time and time again I see two people standing on stage like two boring talking head statues and their scene is just that… boring. As soon as I ask them to move around, dialogue flows.

As long as you have at least two of these things going on while you improvise, you will be in good shape. Let us know what you would add to our list.

How I Kill Joy

Joy is something I am trying to work on in all aspects of my life, especially in my improvising and my teaching. For years, I really didn’t know how to feel joy, and I resented people who seemed happy.

God forbid if I met someone who had joy, or worse, had it all the time. In my mind I would write them off as a fake or phony and believed deep down they were more miserable, or at least as miserable, as I was.

Things are starting to change though, through my crazy therapist, my loving wife, Lauren, and even my cat, Princess Coco. Now, I am aware of how little joy I have, and of how when I do get some, how quickly I try to kill it. Today I have a desire to experience more joy in my life. I want to know more about this feeling that seems to have escaped me in my life.

Last weekend I went to the Huge Theater in Minneapolis to teach a series of workshops and do a live episode of Improv Nerd. My guest was Jill Bernard, who along with Butch Roy and Nels Lennes, is truly doing missionary work by spreading the word of long form improv throughout the Twin Cities by operating a booming training center and theater that is running out of performance slots for improvisers.

Jill is also an amazing teacher and performer and one of the most joyful people I know. In fact, she specializes in teaching her students that “they are enough” through joy.

So, during Improv Nerd, I asked Jill, “How do you teach joy?” (The question was more for me than for her.)

She replied in her quirky, somewhat performance artist way, “I pretend I’m a jar of olives.”

The audience laughed, but I was confused. A jar of olives? People fly her all over the country and pay her all this money to teach improv and she is a jar of olives?

Instead of playing with the idea and joining in, like a good improviser, I needed to dissect it even more. “What do you mean?”

She explained that she is not any jar. She’s a skinny jar, with a narrow label, the kind of jar of olives that’s hard to find these days. My brain could not wrap itself around it. She politely pointed out that she could see why I had such hard time with joy. Clearly, I was missing an opportunity to experience joy here, and I was obviously getting more enjoyment out of killing other people’s joy than creating my own.

As she continued to describe the jar of olives in greater detail, I got lost and realized I had no answer to my question and that I needed to move on. Or maybe I had the answer I just did not understand it.

It did not hit me until 48 hours later what she meant. That a jar of olives was getting all this money to teach a workshop. That a jar of olives was flown to Argentina to teach a workshop. That if you really believe you are a jar of olives, how can you take yourself so seriously?

This made sense to me, because I know that many improvisers, me included, take improv way too seriously, so seriously that they are strangling the joy, choking it to death.

And improv is not life and death, though I am one of those people who makes it that way on stage and especially in the classroom, because that is how I live my life. Improv is just joy. Audiences come to watch our shows to see that joy on stage, and if they are smart enough, they eventually take classes in improv to experience that joy.

Even though I have been improvising and teaching for a long time, I keep forgetting this. The good news is today, I am willing to admit that this is something I need to work on, desperately, not only on stage and in my classroom but in all areas of my life. How do you bring joy to improv? I’d love your ideas.

3 Tips for Letting Go of Jealousy

3 Tips for Letting Go of Jealousy

Jazz FreddyJealousy exists, especially among improvisers and actors, though no one really wants to talk about it. It’s part of the human experience, much like anger or sadness. But we think it’s too ugly of an emotion to talk about, something we’re not “supposed” to feel, so instead, we deny we feel jealous at all.

Over the years, I have had real problems with jealousy.

When I started improvising in Chicago in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we all wanted to become famous. And some of us actually did

Chris Farley played on a team at the Improv Olympic at the same time I was on a team. He then got a slot on SNL and left for New York. Mike Myers would join our team once in a while, too, before he went off to SNL. Stephanie Weir and I did a brilliant show called Naked, before she got hired for Second City’s Mainstage before going on to Mad TV. I played with Rachel Dratch in Jazz Freddy, and knew Tina Fey back when she was chunky with bad hair, before they both, you guessed it, moved to New York and got on SNL.

And every time someone got something, I wish I could say I was happy for them, but I was not. I secretly hoped they would fail. I really turned being jealous into an art form. I could turn someone else’s success into “I must be doing something wrong.”

But the worst was when my best friend and roommate, Dave Koechner, got hired to become a cast member on Saturday Night Live (years before he moved to L.A. and got parts in Anchorman and The Office). That day, I threw out our television and considered jumping on the ‘L’ tracks to have the Brown Line run me over.

As my friends left Chicago for LA and NY for bigger opportunities, I turned jealousy into bitterness.

Then somewhere in my 30s and 40s, things started to change. My first step was reading a list of all the people I was jealous of to my friend, Eric, one Saturday afternoon in his kitchen in tiny garden apartment, and after reading it, some of the horrible jealousy began to lift.

Along the way I found some other tools that helped me that I want share with you.

3 Tips for Letting Go of Jealousy

1. Admit it
Admit that you are jealous and that there’s nothing wrong with jealousy. Find people you trust — friends, therapist, support groups — where you can admit these jealous feelings without being judged. You want them just to listen to you. Not, “Hey, I am jealous of Tina Fey,” and then they say something like, “Oh, there’s no reason to be.” Or worse, going into some sort of character assassination of the person for an hour. You just want someone to listen to you so you’re not alone with it. Jealousy is energy that needs to be released. If you don’t release it, it turns into an emotional cancer of resentment and bitterness, which does nothing to help you with your creative process.

2. Remember, they might help you in the future
One way to feel less jealous of people who go on to be successful is to remember that someday they may be in a position to help you out in the future. Oh man, this was so so helpful for me because I am one of those selfish people who needs to see what I can get out of something. Improv Nerd has been great with this. I have been jealous of many of our guests at one time or another, and when I realized they not only could help me out but also were willing to help me out, the jealousy started to fade rather quickly.

3. Create, Create, Create
The best medicine I have found for curbing jealous is creating. My jealousy is at an all-time high when I am not performing, writing or improvising. When I’m not creating, I just sit around asking “Where’s my piece of the pie? Is it ever coming?” But when I am in my creative process and writing or doing a show, I lose myself and everyone else’s careers don’t seem to matter so much.