for the Professional Improviser
I’ve been watching improv actors make magic for over thirty years. One of the deep joys of living in the Bay Area is having access to a remarkable array of Improvisational Theatre groups. I’ve been the lucky audience for several thousand performances of “one of a kind” plays created out of shear grit and magic on the spot. I’ve watched a number of groups come and go, form and dissolve; reform and spring back like the Phoenix. Among them were Pulp Playhouse, True Fiction Magazine, Three for All, San Francisco Improv Playhouse, Awkward Dinner Party and two decades of BATS shows to name a few.
The community of artists who perform this work are both saints and crazies in my opinion. Their talent and courage (and endurance over time) astonishes me. I’ve been a theater person for half a decade. I taught acting at Stanford University, spent summers doing stock with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, the Nebraska Repertory Theatre and several raucous southern Outdoor Drama productions. I have not, however, trod the boards of the improv stage. It’s far too scary for me, I tell my students. I’m okay with a script. I like knowing when the show’s over.
However, I teach improv and like to think that my long years experience in the classroom, if not on stage, allows me a voice. What’s on my mind is the mental/spiritual health of the men and women who are professional improv actors. I am writing this as a love letter to these courageous players in the hope that this advice might make sense. You know who you are. You have been gifting me and my students for decades.
When you improvise a performance you are using 120% of your humanity. Becoming characters that live and breathe and struggle and die and change and love and mourn (all in front of a paying audience) takes a gigantic human toll. I’m guessing that when the lights go down after a successful show (or even a mediocre or lousy one) each of you is both exhilarated and exhausted. To improvise means that you are using the whole self-- body, mind and spirit. You are using your deep database of knowledge of literature, story, character, locale, vocal technique and social psychology. It’s a miracle, when you really consider what is happening, especially in a long form show, but to a lesser extent, in short form improv as well. I can’t think of any other human activity that uses ALL of our human capacity at the same time as this art does. Even Olympic athletes, while using 100% of their physical and mental ability are not creating the scene and story on the spot before an audience. I think professional improv actors are Gods and Goddesses, or at least Superheroes. They are doing so much more than even great actors are called upon to do.
So, my advice is this: You must take time off from this work in order to regenerate. Even if your physical health is excellent your soul and spirit/mind need time to refuel. Improv actors need alone time, preferably in nature away from family and social requirements. They need to ingest new nourishment. They need to read stories and books of literature and poetry. They need to see movies and television dramas of quality as well as those of dubious worth. They need to take in images, characters, cultures and genres to stoke up their arsenal of fiction. They benefit from travel both domestic and foreign. They need time in which they are not required to perform and put out. They need spaciousness, rest and as Michael Harris suggests: they need absence—real time and space in which they are not required to do anything. I’m convinced that a week of this kind of regenerative space can produce large payoffs in terms of mental and physical health.
I’m sure this all sounds like a good idea, but when will you ever find that open week? It won’t fall in your lap . . . unless you so exhaust yourself that you become unwell and are quarantined. Instead, those of you who give so much of your life on the improv stage (and in classes which also are high calorie life events) you must set aside the time. Put it on your calendar as you would a work assignment. And, then execute that week of refreshment.
In addition to finding genuine sabbatical time (as mentioned above) it is also important to find “mini-vacations” in which you cultivate alone time, with your cell phones turned off. Perhaps you can spend a free afternoon alone in a great science or art museum just wandering the galleries and soaking up the beauty and wonder of art and nature. Or you can walk in the park slowly without an agenda, possibly people watching. I have stressed the value of alone time. The kind of regeneration I’m advocating happens more rarely when you are with a partner or spouse. Find time to be alone. Read a fine book. Munch an apple. Savor a cup of tea.
If you begin to make a life habit of nourishing your humanity with spaciousness on a regular basis I predict that your on-stage improv life will flourish and grow. You deserve this and you need this. I hope some of you will take this to heart. Let me know how it goes.
by Patricia Ryan Madson
October 3, 2015