I have always been a competitive kid.
I played tennis at a competitive level. My greatest joy is the Big Match. The Tournament. The Big Show. That’s how I measure my progress. I get ecstatic when I win. I get devastated when I lose, but I thought, that’s just what the game is.
One day I was visiting my cousin in North Carolina. She was an accomplished tennis player with scholarships and trophies. We played tennis and traded heavy groundstrokes. She whacked the hell out of the ball. She was better than me, so I felt the challenge. After a good half hour, my competitive juices couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Let’s start the Match!!!” I called out!
My cousin, however, declined. “Let’s play one point at a time.”
As a kid, this puzzled me. We didn’t keep score, no one won or lost. We did have a fantastic time whacking the hell out of the ball. But playing tennis without having The Big Match, really confused me.
Years later I found out, my cousin loved tennis. She just doesn’t enjoy the competition. She loved whacking the hell out of the ball. And she was really, really, really good.
On improv shows
Ok, what does this have to do with improv?
Well, I’ve long believed the tournament is The Big Improv Show. The big tournament/show is where you muster everything you practiced and honed into one big performance piece. Where all eyes are upon you gauging if you’re a champ or a loser. If you are a great entertainer or a stage filler. This is THE barometer of where you are as a performer.
But now I understood this.
It’s performer. Not improviser. An improviser does not have to be a performer.
My cousin is a tennis player, but it does not mean she needs competitive tournaments. She just likes whacking the hell out of the ball. And you, too, can be an improviser just because you like doing improv. Show or no show. You like Yes-Anding and creating scenes. There’s nothing wrong with that. An improviser is not defined by a show.
I think, in the past, the two things are conflated because of the limited space. You are vying for that spot on the stage because it felt like the only way to progress. Level 1, showcase. Level 2, showcase. Level 3, showcase. Entire schools, with smaller and smaller classes as the levels go up, are built upon the paradigm of putting you on their stage at some point to replenish their talent pool. And the only way to show that “you care” is by performing in shows.
But sometimes strange events help you find yourself. Because of the strangeness that is 2020, you have online improv — where you can jump from vine to vine, from workshop to workshop, without ever doing shows… while still levelling up. You have legions of improvisers who have gotten significantly better from April 2020 to April 2021 with very few shows on their resume, because the goal is not to populate a theatre stage. That’s both freedom and a paradigm shift. You don’t have to subjugate yourself to the anxiety of shows to be an improviser. You don’t have to put yourself on the line (and possibly be devastated after a bad show), if you don’t want to.
It doesn’t have to hurt
Shows help you get better. This is true. Failing is a big part in learning improv, as is accepting failures. I always thought I learn more from a bad show than a good one. As a kid, losing in tennis devastated me but helped me focus on shoring up my weaknesses. My bad improv shows are often the turning point to refocus on fundamentals, listen to my partner, go back to Yes And, and get back up. If you can handle that inherent risk, go face your fears and perform shows. Be triumphant or be devastated.
But shows aren’t the only way. Sometimes you don’t need to be devastated. There’s really only so much you can take. If anything 2020 taught us, is that we can be gentler to ourselves in these tough times.
Now comes my skiing story.
I didn’t learn skiing until I was 30. The first time I learned skiing, I was taught by a very good friend who learned skiing the hard way. Like his own experience, I was slapped on a pair of alpine skies, and put atop a steep hill in Oppdal, Norway’s biggest ski resort. (This was equivalent to being put on stage) This was rough. I fell 100+ times, not a joke. My friend said he has never seen anyone fall that often. At the end of the day, every muscle in my body was in pain and I was mentally drained. (The analogy is a total mental devastation after bombing on stage.)
Sure, I did learn a thing or too about skiing — apart from my utter lack of body coordination — but this was TOO much. The second day in Oppdal, I said no thanks. No more. I learned, but I can’t handle going through that anymore.
If you find yourself to this point of devastation after a bad show, you’d understand this, too. And you may not ever want to do another show. You can say no to a show without ever feeling unvalidated as an improviser.
It took me a good two years before I touched a ski again.
But this time, I did no shows. I did not go for the competition. I did at my own pace, walking on skis. One step at a time, without falling. Now, this was a total different approach to my tennis days. Yet I found out that I do enjoy the sensation of sliding on the snow. And because of that I did ski for bit.
I never did challenge myself to that steep hill.
And I feel pretty good about it. I am a skier.