Remember this Simpsons bit with Krusty about hemorrhoids and riding bikes?
That “I can ride a bike again!” idea jumps into my head a lot (more often than a person should really think about hemorrhoids…probably). I think about it in conjunction with that “It’s just like riding a bike” expression used to refer to an activity that, once learned, becomes so second nature that it can be engaged again without effort even if it’s been a long time since the last time you engaged the activity.
I’ve been improvising on stage since I was 12. Over the subsequent years I’ve learned a lot and logged a lot of hours on stage. You might think at this point – even if I were to step away from improv for a while – I could get on stage with anyone anywhere and it’d be “just like riding a bike.”
But then there are those damn hemorrhoids. Once you get decent at something you can get in your head about not wanting to fall back below that level of competence you’ve reached, and that fear actually undermines the effort. God forbid you start teaching so that every time you get on stage in front of students your mind goes to “putting your money where your mouth is” instead of putting your mind in the moment. And, heavens to Betsy, one day you’ll be on the old side of this young person’s hobby and you’ll feel that while you’re taking stage time those whippersnappers are thinking you should be put out to pasture. Hemorrhoids!
On top of that, you might be committing the worst sins of the old improviser: You and your team aren’t practicing and don’t have a coach. So you are feeling all the pressure in the world to succeed on stage and eschewing the thing that your ensemble needs to succeed.
Yes, “you” is “me.” These are my hemorrhoids, my sins. Riding a bike was hard.
But guess what? “I can ride a bike again!” And the fix? Preparation (H).
We committed to practicing regularly. Narcs, our team of veteran improvisers had played with each plenty over the years; we just hadn’t ever learned together. We needed time to play together off stage to reduce the amount of pressure we felt when on stage. We needed to be able to try things where we were okay failing at them.
We got a coach. We entertained the notion of rotating coaches from our cast. We are our company’s most experienced improvisers and we hold most of the leadership positions – so, c’mon, who would we respect and who would have the guts to tell us what to do? Well… one of our hemorrhoids was “being on the same page” and rotating cast members as coaches would have had us jumping from page to page and would be unlikely to provide a consistent narrative. We needed someone to direct us from outside.
We got Elizabeth Byland to be our coach. “EB” recently came to Richmond as an adjunct professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Theatre. And “EB” is awesome – an awesome person, an awesome improviser, and awesomely exactly what the doctor ordered.
“My teaching centers on playing together,” she told us that first night. “We want to be having fun with one another.”
And for our first warm-up she presented us with a Koosh Ball. We stood in a circle and batted the ball around. You could hit it as many times as you could. We just had to count out-loud together how many times we hit it. And when it hit the ground we cheered, picked it up, and started over.
What did that have to do with improv? Well, I found myself focused out on my friends playing a game together. There were no mechanics to be in one’s head about. There was no goal to reach nor any harm in the ball dropping.
We. Were. Just. Having. Fun. Together.
And guess what? That fun? That sense of play? Being focused outward on what’s happening instead of being in our heads worrying about what’s next? That all transferred to stage.
Here’s the show that followed that first practice –
It’s not “the best” show. But, oh man, listen to the audience LOVE it.
And. It. Was. FUN!!!
We had fun with discovery. With stage picture. With endowments.
We had fun together!
We had fun with big choices. With creative mechanics. With chaos and quiet.
We had fun together!
There’s no money in improv. There’s little fame and even less glory.
There is absolutely no reason to do this stupid thing unless you’re having fun doing it.
It’s improv’s most simple truth. And yet it’s so easy to lose sight of when one’s focus gets drawn into their navel.
I had become too concerned, too careful, too caught up. I wasn’t having fun. And I was falling off my bike.
Thanks to EB and my Coalition friends, “I can ride a bike again.”
I’ll fall off again. I’m sure of it. But that’s why I wrote this post: To remind me of the only thing I need to know.