There’s a concept used a lot in sports, but not talked about enough in improv, and that’s rhythm. This concept came to me as I was choking water in a pool.
I’m a beginner swimmer; just learning the rhythms of freestyle breathing. There I was swimming at a nice rhythm in the beginner’s lane, when I spotted another beginner in the next lane. So the little competitive assbag (me) HAD to show off in this impromptu made-up race, of course. I started pacing up 25% faster… My rhythm got thrown off, the mechanics got disjointed, I was breathing in the water… it was terrible. I forced my head up to gasp at air, which made the body sink, and I had to force it even more to gasp at air in a spectacular unraveling of things I learned. I still knew in theory that my natural rhythms would give the breathing space, but at that point I had lost confidence in my mechanics.
WELL! We have all had that sinking feeling on stage, of course. That moment when we tried a joke that didn’t land. And because we felt the death stare from the audience, we forced another joke that dug us into a deeper hole. And there we are, 3 years of Tuesday improv trainings and reading Truth in Comedy 27 times went out the door. We go survival mode from being sucked into the vortex of audience cringe, hoping a joke would save us. It didn’t, of course, thank your lifeguard teammates for that mercy edit though.
You’re trying too hard to be funny is what they say. But I see it as a rhythm thing. Your playing speed is the natural tempo where you like to receive offers, process them, and give offers back. Playing too fast can mean you can’t fully listen to the offer, or you didn’t have enough time to compute and had to rush through your moves, or you’re going for the joke too quickly. You’re throwing away ideas too quickly and looking for the next shiny thing. Oppositely, you can even freeze on stage(!) — because in your mind, you have to go faster and your mind gets detached from your body, and you give up.
And that can happen for many reasons, be it anxiety or excitement. Playing in an unfamiliar crowd and wanting to win them over. Playing at a new theatre where every other act is fast. Playing in a mixer team where your team is throwing stuff at you faster than you can chew. Your guests are here from out of town. And the worst of them all: The Audition. It’s that feeling of need to please someone. You are playing at 25% faster speed than you’re used to and it throws your timing off. You rehearsed at 100 km/h and now it’s 125 km/h (that’s 25%!), where objects come at you at frightening pace; you can’t hold on to your technique.
If you feel this, stop. Breathe. Get back to your rhythm.
This is what practice is useful for: to understand your internal clock. Some people are build with fast clocks, some people are built with slow, sturdy clocks. Neither of this is better than the other; improv is after all an art, it’s taste. You just have to recognize what is YOUR clock. You should know your comfortable speed.
(Aside: in many ways I think online improv helped a lot of people with slower clocks because most physical stages encourage a fast pace. Online improv, on the other hand, just go at your pace.)
Not 25% … but 5%
Having said that, I do think there is a difference between sports and improv. In sports you want to practice and fine-tune your swimming stroke, golf stroke, basketball shooting stroke to a perfect speed, and shoot it the exact same rhythm during the big game.
In improv, I think going juuuuuuust a little faster than how you normally practice, is the optimal speed. Not to the point that your technique starts to unravel, but just a little bit. Not 25% .. but 5%. I think this comes from being in a state of vigilance, and your mind treats sensations with a little more care. There is that saying “going through the motions”, right? Well, in improv you definitely NOT want to go through the motions, going 5% extra slaps your brain to be present in the moment. Maybe for this reason, some teams have their best ever show at big improv festivals with big audiences, because they’re playing at 105% speed. But you don’t have to force anything. Trust your technique and play at your normal speed, and the roaring crowd will tip you just to that speed where the magic happens.