Recently I’ve had a few people in workshops who have been looking like they’ve been having a great time all workshop, have been really fun in all the games, and yet afterwards have revealed in the pub or over email that they actually felt like they were doing really ‘badly’ and were the ‘worse’ in the group.
Often there is a large gap between how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by others. Most of the performers I know still have this, as do loads of people new to improv.
So why do measure ourselves to others?
Here’s my own experience:
I signed up for a week long intensive workshop with a visting US teacher the other year. Only towards the end of the week did I realise that all I’d been thinking about was how well I was doing as compared to the rest of the group, whether I was the best or not, and collecting compliments the teacher said to me like mushrooms in Mario Kart. What a waste of time! It could have been a golden opportunity to form a team with the people there, to really bond, to maybe form a show group. But it was just me and my ego, sitting in the corner with my notepad.
For me I think this attitude is a leftover from my education.
At school with GCSEs and A-Levels we had to line up to collect our results from the headteacher. One by one we walked into his office, were given our grades, and then had to walk out where there would be about 100 of our year group who would then immediately know. Everyone knew what everyone else had got. We’d been told these results were the most important things in our lives, so how good you felt about yourself was directly connected to what you got and what you got compared to everyone else.
At my university our final results were stuck on a wall. Not a facebook wall, an actual wall. They weren’t listed in alphabetical order, but in order of grade. So you would go up and start at the top looking for your name, and the further down you got until you found your name the worse you had done. Everyone else’s grades were there to see, everyone knew what everyone else had got, and all they talked about in the pub afterwards was what everyone had got. Being better than everyone meant ‘happy’, being worse meant ‘sad’.
When studying for most exams there were right and wrong answers (I did a lot of Maths), and right and wrong methods of getting to these answers. Our value and efforts had a directly measurable result that could be directly compared to others, and my entire self worth was wrapped up in my position in that hierarchy.
After that there were job interviews, with lots of friends going for similar jobs, and people either got jobs (‘happy’) or didn’t (‘sad’), and then there was how much they get paid, yet again more ways for people to measure themselves against others.
However in improv, and most creative endeavours, there is NO RIGHT OR WRONG! This takes ages to really ‘get’. There is no right or wrong, no correct outcome, no limits and no rules. The only person that can define what you want to do is you. This is scary at first but eventually liberating. You can do anything you want. What do you want to do on stage or screen? Do that. What do you find beautiful and fun? Do that. Nobody else can tell you that. Courses and things might offer options but really it’s up to you to then take what you like and do what you love.
Rather than pursuing what you feel you “should” you are free to perform what you want to do, what feels good. This might feel wrong but that’s when you become a truly unique performer. A career in the arts and improv is passionately pursuing what you love and believe in, and only you can find that.
This can be a breakthrough for beginners. Sometimes they stop mid game and say they don’t know what to do, but if you ask them what they actually feel like doing, and they do it, genius can come out. After years in work or education where there is a mystical correct way of doing many things, and a prescribed sequence of actions to be learnt, so to be in a fully open and creative environment can be frightening at first but eventually liberating.
Similarly for performing groups. For ages they can try and perfect a set form by the book, but usually they become amazing when they discover what is unique about them and pursue what they find fun, and often discover a whole new thing.
Because there is no defined value or grading system, because it’s an artistic endeavour and therefore defined by the artist, there is actually no reason to compare yourself to others. Every group is singing their own song, so just sing the song you love.
Yet sometimes we don’t do the things we love in improv or the arts because we fear being measured by others, but nobody can do that as there is no grading system in the first place, there is no right or wrong. A 100m runner can’t tell a 100m swimmer they are too slow at the 100m, they are doing their own thing.
So you can’t do ‘badly’ at improv as there is no right or wrong in the first place, it is an act of pure art and creativity. And you can’t be the ‘worse’ in the group because there is no grading system.
There are no rules in improv. There are some guidelines that help people play together, but the only person that can define the values/rules/ is you and you are totally free to do what you want.
Now stop reading this blog and go do what you want. Unless you don’t want to. It’s up to you.