There comes a time in every improviser’s life that you suddenly and without much reason are no longer doing “good” improv. Something happened, some minor change, and soon your scenes aren’t fun, you’re making weak choices and you feel like a turd after every show. Trust me, I speak from experience. I have been a walking turd after plenty a show.
Jill Bernard in her Small Cute Book of Improv describes this event as The Valley of Suck, part of the Sine Wave of Suck for you math geeks. It’s a time in an improviser’s art where they just inexplicably do bad improv. And it happens to everyone. But as the metaphors imply, it is merely a valley and not a Bottomless Pit of OhGodWhatAmIDoing.
Here are a few tips and tricks that will help you get out of that Valley, and back on the rise to be King of the Mountain.
* Go back to the basics.
Think about your early early improv career. What “rules” were you taught then? What kinds of exercises did you do as a beginner? Look at these exercises again now that you’re way beyond beginner status and think how they affect what you’re doing now. Are you asking a lot of questions? It could be that you aren’t feeling confident making choices. Are you “No, But…”-ing? I run into this problem a lot myself, finding negative responses to things then trying to justify how I’m actually going along with the scene established and not just being a Negative Nancy. Try being everybody’s best friend in every scene… ever. Just focusing on doing any of those basic things might help make a change for the better.
* Challenge Yourself
You are the dog who pooped while your owner was away. You knew what you did. Don’t rub your nose in it, find a way to break the habit. Having a lot of talking head scenes? Challenge yourself to keep extremely long moments of physical contact with another player. Challenge yourself to be constantly moving. Low Energy? Become a lightning bolt. High Energy? Become a reflecting pool. Whatever you’re doing that is bad and wrong and naughty and making you feel like a turd, do the EXACT OPPOSITE to the EXTREME.
The best advice I’ve ever heard about breaking a slump is to dive right into it. Being bad at improv? Go gung-ho about it. Whatever you’re doing that feels wrong, try committing 100% to the suck for a while. Be the most negative scene partner ever. Literally stand on stage and only talk, never moving. Play questions only in a long-form scene. Explore the thing that makes you bad and see if you can make it a good, learn from the mistake and use the dark side to your advantage.
If after all of this you are still Captain McSuck of the Super Suck Squad, try refreshing yourself. Take a class in something else. Go to an art museum. Feed your soul in some sort of non-improvy way and look at the world from a different POV for a while. Or ask your TRUSTED friends and mentors for observations. Maybe they’ll pick up a pattern you’re missing. Just don’t fear Captain McSuck, you may have had an awful sequel, but there’s a GOOD chance that Episode III will kick ass.