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How to be More Mindful in Your Improv

The other day I heard someone give a pretty inspiring talk, and at the end of it he said, “The most important thing we can do is be present when we are with other people.” I immediately thought of improv.

Today, it’s called mindfulness, and it’s being taught in schools, practiced in offices and become a buzzword you hear all the time on social media. The reason it’s so popular is because we have so many distractions — between technology, social media, multi-tasking and our constant on-the-go culture, it’s become harder and harder to stay focused on one thing at time.

Luckily, being mindful is something that we as improvisers are trained to do. The audience actually rewards us for being present, by laughing and clapping, even though they might not even know it.

And the more mindful we can be in our improv, the better we’ll be on stage. When we focus on being in the present, rather than thinking about all of the other things in our head, we can be better listeners, we can respond more authentically in the moment, and we can be more relaxed, which is the best state to be in on stage to access your creativity.

Often when beginning students take my Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, they’ll ask me what they can do in between classes to get better at improvising. And the short answer is to work on being more present in your everyday life.

When you are out with your friends, stop looking at your cell phone. When you’re home washing dishes in your apartment don’t try to multi-task — just do one thing at time. And the hardest, but most beneficial thing you can do is to slow the fuck down.

If you are constantly rushing from your job to a show or rehearsal without some down time to decompress from work or eat a healthy meal, you are not going to be very mindful on stage. You have to slow down long enough to let your mind be present.

Sure, you have to work on your craft by taking class and doing shows, but don’t forget that in this art form, the most important thing to work on is yourself.

Here are three things that I have done to be more mindful in my improv.

  1. Meditate on a regular basis
    One of the biggest benefits of meditation is it can help you be more creative. Meditation was suggested to me for years, but it took me a long time to develop a consistent habit. For the last five or six years, I’ve been meditating every morning, typically for 15 to 20 minutes. Not only does it make my day run smoother, but it has also improved my listening skills, both in my life in my improvising.On stage, when my scene partner says a line, I actually have more time to respond to what they just said to me. I feel I am improvising at a higher level and because of meditation, I suddenly seem to have more choices in the moment. Nothing is more exciting when I am improvising than when I have too many good ideas in my head and I am forced to keep making a choice about which way to go. It’s like the improv fork in the road — I can either take a right or left — and this happens more frequently when I meditate on a regular basis.
  2. Be less judgmental
    If you are like me, you may be judgmental, which is not a great skill to have in improv and certainly not in life. When I am judging someone on stage or in life, it takes me out of the moment and blocks me from my true creativity.People have told me over the years, “Just stop being judgmental,” which works about as well as telling your alcoholic Uncle Teddy to “just stop drinking.” For me, being judgmental is an addiction, and denying that just makes it harder to stop.

    Lately, however, I have tried a new technique based on a Hawaiian healing method called Ho’o Ponopono that has actually been helping me let go of my judgmental thoughts. According to this philosophy, when a judgmental thought comes up, either while I’m improvising or in my life, I say “I love you” over and over again. As you read this you may think I am nuts. (If so, this would be a good time to use the “I love you” method over and over). In all seriousness, this practice has really worked for me and has helped both my improvising and teaching.

  3. Create a ritual
    Another way to become more mindful is to create a ritual for yourself before your improv show, class or rehearsal. I have made up different rituals depending on the show I was in that helped ground me and make me more present. When I was doing “God Show,” I would walk around the block at Second City about 30 minutes before the show to get my energy up and to breathe fresh air. When I did my improv show “Summer Rental,” I would get quiet and do some physical stretches to get out of my head and into my body.Today, before my shows and classes, I take a hot bath at home to relax. I also will be very mindful of what I do that day so I can take care of myself and limit my running around.

    You don’t have to have an altar and use incense to create a ritual for yourself. It can be as simple as taking off an hour early from your day job on the night of your improv show and making a healthy meal instead of rushing to the theater after scarfing down a frozen pizza. Trust me, self-care will translate to your performance on stage.

Want to up your game in your improv? Sign up for Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 2 class, starting April 24. Save $30 when you register by April 10! 

6 Tips for Getting Relaxed Before a Show

In her wonderful book, Presence, author Amy Cuddy asks actor Julianne Moore what presence is for an actor. Moore answers: “The key to presence — and this is one thing they tell you in school — is relaxation.”

When I first starting out taking improv classes, I cannot tell you how frustrated I was that I could be loose and funny when I was hanging out with my friends, but as soon as I got into class or on stage I would become scared and stiff. It took me awhile to figure out what was wrong. The reason was simple: In social situations with my friends I was relaxed. I wasn’t tense or putting pressure on myself. I could just be myself.

Among my friends, I had a built-in trust and support that didn’t translate to the group of strangers in my improv classes. It took me years to act as comfortable on stage as I was in my real life. Today, the more relaxed I can be for a show, for an interview for the podcast, or for an audition, the better I seem to do. When I’m relaxed, I’m able to have more fun, which always leads to a better outcome.

Unfortunately, being relaxed isn’t something most improvisers even consider. They are too busy running around from their day job to a show, to a rehearsal, to class and back to another show. They tell themselves, “I am so busy that I don’t have time to relax.” Then they wonder why they are not farther along in their careers.

Being relaxed is not just a state of mind — it takes work to be relaxed. You cannot show up two minutes before your group is going to go on stage and expect to be relaxed. It doesn’t work that way. We are not machines; we are artists with very sensitive wiring.

To help you be as relaxed as possible for your shows, classes, rehearsals and auditions, I’ve come up with a few tips I’d like to share with you:

  1. Show up on time or even early
    This is so simple, I keep forgetting to do it myself. Show up for your next class or audition or show 10 minutes before you are supposed to be there and see how much of a different experience you have.
  1. Create a little ritual before the show
    I have seen people pray or stretch or meditate or listen to music on their iPhone to get in the right head space to go out and perform.
  1. Get a good night’s sleep
    If you are tired, you will never be relaxed.
  1. Drink plenty of water
    I said water. Not Red Bull, not draft beer, not Diet Coke. Water.
  2. Eat healthy
    Grabbing McDonald’s before a show will leave you sluggish on stage. There is a difference between being relaxed and being in a food coma.
  3. Take care of yourself the day of the show
    Don’t be running around doing too much the day of the show. If you have day job, pace yourself and figure out a time when you can decompress after work. Take yourself out to a quiet dinner. Meditate. Go to the health club. Taking a nap, shower, or bath seems obvious, but those are also great ways to increase relaxation before a show, class or audition.

If you have any other suggestions, please feel free to add to the list by adding to the comments below!

Looking to up your improv game this summer? Don’t miss one of Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Intensives! Happening July 15-16, July 29-30 and Aug. 19-20. The Early Bird Special is only $229. Sign up today!