1. Give yourself one thing to play with per show.
In an improv workshop you have a coach giving you exercises to do and things to focus on. When you start performing it’s good to start giving yourself your own thing to play with per show, don’t wait for someone else to tell you, take the responsibility for yourself.
This might be things like ‘yes and’, ‘treat it like it’s real’, ‘react and add’, ‘play with character’, ‘build a physical envionment’, ‘be emotional’. But just bring one conscious thing per show though, too many and it’s confusing. One conscious thing helps remove fear and distracts our ego so our subconscious can take over and do the fun creative stuff!
2. Turn up on time
Don’t turn up late for a rehearsal or show holding a coffee you bought on the way there. It’s very disrespectful to the rest of the cast and means the team can’t warm up together and form a group mind.
3. Treat each show as a learning experience
The first two improv shows I ever did went really well. The third one however was so awful that half the audience left in the interval! After the show I was so upset I went and hid under a table in the green room rather than have to be in the pub downstairs facing friends who had come to see.
I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote a list of everything that was awful about the show. Luckily I didn’t throw the list away because over the following weekend I wrote the opposite thing against each entry on the list, what the positive version of the show would have been. Then next to each of those I wrote an exercise that would help us learn how to do that. That list of exercises became our syllabus for our next two months of rehearsals, which later became our syllabus for when we started running our own improv workshops.
So there you go, my most painful and humiliating improv experience also turned out to be my biggest learning experience.
4. Perform 1000 shows
I got this from one of Keith Johnstone’s books. Rather than telling yourself you are going to perform one improv show and see how it goes, tell yourself you are going to perform 1000 improv shows no matter what. This takes the pressure of show number three, and show number 23, and means each show is part of an ongoing learning experience.
5. Keep going
I was talking to Nick Oram from Do Not Adjust Your Stage recently about this. They’ve become an incredibly popular group, they are one of our regular monthly house teams with a large loyal audience and have also been picked up by various international festivals and also been performing sold out shows at The National History Museum.
I asked them what their secret of their improv success was and he said they’ve just been going non-stop for a long time. There were loads of other groups around when they started out but Do Not Adjust Your Stage have just kept it going. He even said there were some points when the cast were thinking of going their separate ways, but they never really got round to splitting up!
Constant on the job experience is amazing. Yes there are things you can learn from books and workshops, but really just by getting up and doing it regularly you’ll learn without really thinking about it.
Also by doing it for so long there is now something uniquely Do Not Adjust Your Stage about them.
6. Read non-impro books too
Impro books are helpful but there are also various general creativity books that can help keep you motivated. I’ve recently enjoyed reading The Artist’s Way and The War of Art.
7. Do acting classes
Impro workshops aren’t the be all and end all. Acting classes can train voice, movement, stage craft, emotion and presence that can make impro more professional. In London there are some good classes at City Lit, The Cockpit Theatre, Act Up and also the big drama schools like RADA and LAMDA if you really want to go for it.
8. Don’t worry what everyone else is up to
The impro scene isn’t a competition. It’s perfectly possible that everyone can have a good time, and everyone can perform in shows they enjoy performing in. Love and joy isn’t a limited resource.
We probably end up comparing ourselves to each other in some kind of league table because that’s what basically happened at school for the first 18 years or our lives. Sometimes I think our jobs as performers and artists is to break down that fake barrier between people, so we should really try to break it down between ourselves first.
If you feel yourself perceiving barriers within the improv scene then book a space and invite groups along you don’t usually work with. Get off facebook and talk to the real humans, and the barriers aren’t there any more.
9. Keep focusing on the basics
If you are working on a show format you should still spend about half your time focusing on impro basics, even if you think you’ve got them. This could include things like Listening, Yes And, Commitment, Character, Who What Where, Emotions. Make a list of what you think the basics of improv are, and make yourself do them on a regular basis.
10. Do your own warm up
If you’re at a show or jam where there isn’t an organised warm up you can still take the time and responsibility to warm up yourself. Find something that works for you, maybe some stretches in a park around the corner, some solo objects from a box, anything that gets you present.
11. It’s a whole new show each time
Just because the last impro show you were in went amazingly well it unfortunately doesn’t mean anything for the show you are about to do. So start from scratch each time, each show is a whole new beginning and each audience is a whole new audience. Sometimes we remember the hilarious scene that we were in the week before, but forget that the foundation of that scene was actually a very real platform of who/what/where that wasn’t funny. So don’t go on stage looking for immediate laughs, but welcome it in when it happens.
12. Pursue what’s fun
You can put on whatever you want to. Put on what you find fun. Put on what your friends and family find fun (your first audience). Don’t treat it as something to get right. Treat it as a regular party that you get to host for your friends and share some good times.
Just added this bit: Eat healthy and exercise! The impoverished artist is an unhelpful stereotype, you are more fun to watch when you feel healthy, so look after yourself!