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.