Recovering from the tilt
Improv is a mental sport. Therefore, the same mental problems in sports are the same in improv.
I play lots of online chess. Now and then, I run into strings of fugly losses — hanging my queen, giving away checkmates, tantrums over the computer. No player escapes this. It usually starts with fumbling away an almost-Perfect Game — then I get upset and the next game I’ll force bad plays and it gets worse. Suddenly it becomes a 13-game losing streak. Any gamer or poker player know this as tilting.
We’ve had it with improv as well, right? For weeks on end, your shows all fall flat. You seem to make wrong and uninspired choices. Your shows stagnate. The cause is the same: you’re hacking your way to shortcut wins (or laughs). Your game had become result-oriented. Not joy.
Back to chess. I like to play this flashy asymmetric opening called the Alekhine’s Defense. At its best, it’s sharp, exciting and complex. At its worst, it’s a cheap gimmick hoping to jump on unsuspecting opponents. You can already guess what happens when I’m on a tilt. In hoping to score cheap wins, I am making risky gambles. I go into a numb, mindless mode with memorized sequences and not appreciating the richness of the board in front of me. Same as with improv, we get into a rut of canned jokes to get cheap laughs, instead of viewing the scene as something fresh.
How do I snap out of losing funks? By going back to the boring stuff. I go back to the infamously boring Giuoco Piano, so named “the quiet game”. Instead of attacking like a berserker, this opening would quietly develop pieces, making solid moves after solid moves, all the while not being too worried about a quick and easy win.
This cuts down on errors, sure, but there’s more to it. These boring, quiet moves feel like going back to fundamentals. (Indeed, Giuoco Piano is the first opening I learned.) By doing these boring moves, I start to remember why I loved playing chess in the first place. It’s not for the immediate checkmate, taunting and mooning opponents, or declaring I am an intelligently superior human being. The love of the game is the art of placing pieces in harmony, having cute little plans, attacking AND defending, and WHEN the opportunity presents itself, pounce on with cool combinations.
I think it’s pretty much the same for improv. What are complicated things in improv? An intricate 5-beat Dystopian Narrative Harold format that your team has been developing for months in order to win audiences, but gets into your head. What are boring things in improv?
- Simple yes-anding, “that’s your car”, “yes, and my car is green” — no need to be clever.
- Looking what your partner is doing and mirroring without judgement.
- Laying down the boring bits of information, rather than going for the kill (One can say, we should be doing this anyway. Often in light of more exciting stuff, we forget to do the boring stuff).
When your improv isn’t doing so well, let go of the flashy stuff and focus on just making little agreements. After a while you’ll find that doing the mundane stuff is, actually, quite lovely.
Because, sure, we do love to entertain crowds and get the crowd roaring, but why do we do improv in the first place? We could have chosen to be a singer, we could have chosen to be an athlete, we could have chosen to be a clear-out-the-floor tango dancer if we want to entertain and be a star… yet, we choose improv as our tool. There’s something about improv that you love.*
(*Or maybe you only love improv and all that other stuff is extra. Sometimes you don’t want competitive tennis; you just enjoy whacking the ball.)
I believe by making boring moves, you get back to that first love. Forget about winning for a moment, just get back and do the little things. Once you go back to be joy-oriented, your game gets back in tune for some well-deserved victories.