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The One Thing To Make You a Better Improviser

If you have been improvising for a while, you may start to get on autopilot when it comes time to doing shows. (I know I do). You get into the habit of rushing to the theater or bar, barely making your call time and then throwing your body on stage. When it’s all over, you wonder, “Am I getting any better at this?”

And if you want to keep getting better, you have to keep learning. That doesn’t mean you have to keep taking classes. It just means you have to find a way to keep pushing yourself to try new things.

So, I’d like to share this with you something that has worked for me and some of the groups I’ve played with over the years to help us continue to get better. It’s so simple, I’m almost embarrassed to tell you. Here you go:

Before each and every show, gather your team up and decide as a group on ONE thing you are going to focus on during that show. That is it: ONE. You can focus on something like doing bigger characters, or more agreement, or heightening, editing etc. But just pick one. Anything more than ONE will put you in your head and cause you not to have fun, which, as you know, is the poison that kills improv.

Keep the discussion short. It’s not a let’s-rehash-our-last-show-session. Avoid blame and criticizing. Keep it simple. Say something like, “Tonight let’s focus on letting our scene develop before we do walk-ons or edits.” Done. Since it’s a group, other people will have other ideas, so let them flow, and then quickly come to an agreement as a group about what you will focus on. That is it. Do not over complicate it.

With the more experienced or mature groups that I have performed with, this conversation takes a matter of minutes. Now before I continue, for those who think this is planning or cheating, let me reassure you it’s not. It’s simply a way to make sure we keep growing and developing as a group and as performers. It’s called learning.

Before every Jimmy and Johnnie show, John Hildreth and I will run down the show with our guest and briefly discuss the ONE thing we’d like to focus on for that show. Lately, it has been quicker editing. Before that it was doing more of a variety of characters, or being more physical, or using the environment. Here is the thing: If the group has been improvising for a long time, you know what you need to work on instinctually.

Doing this has helped my improv immeasurably because it continues to challenge me and get me out of my comfort zone. Focusing on ONE thing keeps me out of my head, since I have something else to focus on besides my own performance. It makes me feel more connected to my group because we are all working toward a common goal. And in a weird way, it makes me more open, honest and less defensive in the notes session afterwards and encourages me to tell on myself, which always leads to more learning and makes me a better improviser.

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Want to get better at improv? Just have fun

The other night after an extremely fun Jimmy and Johnnie show, a former student who was in the audience came up to me and my wife, Lauren. I asked if he was still doing improv, and he said to me sheepishly, “Yeah. I have been improvising for six years now, and the problem is I don’t know if I am getting any better.”

Then Lauren jumped in asked him a question. “Are you still having fun?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Well,” Lauren said firmly, “If you are still having fun, that’s all that matters.”

Wish I had said that. Because she is right. It is that simple, it’s just not that easy.

The whole point of improv is to have fun. When we take our first improv class, we all fall in love with the freedom we feel in class, the ability to just let loose and be creative. We like it because we’re having fun.

Then somewhere along the line, it becomes competitive. We want to make it on a team, or get a part in a show, or we simply start comparing our progress with other people’s progress – “They do better characters, or make stronger choices” — the list can go on and on. We end up putting pressure on ourselves, which is the number one killer of improvisation.

One of the most common ways we put pressure on ourselves is by saying, “I have been doing improv for X number of years,” or “I went through all the levels at Bob’s Improv School.” When you say this kind of stuff, you usually think you should be farther along than you think you are, and without knowing it, you’re putting even more pressure on yourself.

When we put pressure on ourselves, we take the joy out of improvising. If you want to put pressure on yourself, you should become a high powered lawyer, not an improviser.

The problem is we are in a hurry to get better. Unfortunately, we don’t have control over when we get better. In fact, in my experience, it rarely happens on my time table. Actually, it works just the opposite: If you don’t care if you are getting better, you get better faster.

I have been doing Improv Nerd for over four years, and you know what? This last run of live shows, I finally felt I was getting better as an improviser. It only took 30 years, hundreds of shows and 165 episodes of Improv Nerd for me to feel this way.

How did this happen? Because, I stopped caring if I was going to do a good show or not. I stop worrying if I was getting better. Letting go of those things gave me more room to have fun, which is the true goal in improv. And guess what? When I started putting my focus on having fun instead of being good, I got better without even trying.

So, please, for me, let go of the idea of getting better. Right now, assume you are getting better and that you don’t need to worry about it, ever. And remember, I am a slow learner and this took my over 30 years to learn. I just hope it happens faster for you than it did for me. In the meantime, just have fun.

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