Patience Through The Plateau
Patience Through The Plateau
“When do I start getting better?”
“I suck at this.”
“Improv must just not be for me.”
“Everyone else is better than I am.”
“I don’t belong on the stage.”
Holy moly! These are all things i’ve heard from various students over just the past month. To all of you who might have said something similar to yourself or others, please take a deep breath and read further
There are many students and improvisers who get frustrated because they feel they stopped progressing. After only a few years or less of practicing and performing they’ve “plateaued.” I used to feel this way too, and getting better seemed impossible. That really isn’t fair to yourself and is mostly unrealistic.
If you were learning a foreign language, would you expect to be fluent after a year?
If you were learning to play a musical instrument, would you expect to play concerts for adoring fans after two years?
If you wanted to become a neurosurgeon, would you expect to be all up in someone’s brain after three years?
So why does anyone think mastering improv should be a quick process? Let’s give ourselves some credit and cut ourselves some slack. You are trying to master something that is very hard. Let’s also give improv some credit. Improv is a real art form that takes a lot of time to truly feel comfort with, and even longer to say you’ve mastered it. Above all it takes patience and a love for doing it. The good news is you’re frustrated because you care. That’s half of it!
Get Your Time In
My good buddy Marcus Gladwell proposes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master at anything. That’s 416 days of non-stop participating in that activity. While not perfect, it is a pretty great way to illustrate my point.
Let me do some math (jesus take the wheel)
1 Class = 2 hours
8 Classes in a course = 16 hours
7 courses of classes = 112 hours
Congrats, you finished a class program. Now only 9,888 hours to go! Classes give the ingredients to be perform improv, but don’t expect to be a master after finishing a program. Just like a bachelor's degree doesn’t mean you are great in your field already, you have to put improv into practice constantly.
Students apologize so much when they get an exercise wrong or miss something in a scene. You’ve literally been doing improv for less than a week’s worth of time. Cut yourself some slack, and please stop apologizing.
This should shine a light on the fact that you need to allow yourself some patience. Mastery isn’t going to happen quickly, and you need to be OK with the idea that you might never truly master improv. That’s OK! You can still become confident, still love it, and keep finding new ways to grow. I’ve been doing improv for 7 years and still feel that I am not close!
OK great, point made. improv takes forever and is a grind. Is there anything actionable you can do? Of course!
The Freak Show
Stop worrying about not being as good as someone else. There certainly are people who naturally have a knack for improv and pick up concepts much faster than everyone. Those people are freaks, and deserve our fierce jealousy and admiration. They also are very rare. Don’t get into a game of comparing yourself to others. You’ll never be happy. Besides, there’s probably something else you do better than the freaks. For example, I’m really good at growing a beard. Instead, pay attention to what they do well and talk to them about it to understand their process.
See More Improv
You might feel stuck because your view of what’s possible in improv is narrow. When you first start out, everything is new, so you grow quicker. After a while, you need to experience more to expand your view. That includes experiencing how other people perform in other cities.
If you aren’t fortunate enough to live somewhere that has a variety of improv, the internet has your back. There are plenty of sets recorded online. Watch them, analyze them, rinse, and repeat. They might not all be good, but any exposure can lead to breakthroughs. If you are in one of those improv heavy towns, venture out and see as much new stuff as possible.
Do More Improv
You need stage time in front of an audience to truly progress. Practicing in your living room is awesome and valuable, but the value of instant feedback from people watching you is worth its weight in chuckles. Not on a house team or not getting many performance opportunities in general? That’s fine, make your own opportunities. Grab some people (or a person) you like doing improv with and see if any local bars, restaurants, bookstores, or coffee shops have space for you. And if they don't? Invite people over to your living room to watch. It might be awkward, but hey it might not!
Try Something New
Maybe you get stage time opportunities, but still feel flat. What formats haven’t you tried? It is easy to get stuck in a rut of performing with the same team week after week. If you feel like you aren’t growing, you need to get yourself doing something new. You’ll be amazed how your perspective will change just from trying something different.
Read something new that you wouldn’t normally read. Are you only reading improv books? Pick up something, anything else. It will help you gain new knowledge that can lead to new characters and choices in your improv.
TA a Class
Viewing improv from behind a new lense is a great thing. If you have the ability to be a teaching assistant for an improv class, it can really help fine tune your understanding of improv because you are approaching it from a whole perspective. It is so valuable to see how different instructors approach classes. Not only that, you’ll also hear questions raised by students and impress yourself when you know the answer. Or at the very least, pick something up when the instructor addresses the questions. This is the kind of thing that helps you formulate your own improv point of view. All it takes is emailing an instructor and asking to sit in.
Watching your sets is a good way to notice ticks or small things that you wouldn’t have otherwise. If you are able to film a set, write down your initial reactions to your show immediately after finishing it. Then when you watch the footage, see if your perspective changes. You might be surprised with what you discover.
Expand Your Network
It can become very easy to insulate yourself in the improv world, but I’m telling you, you can’t only hang out with improvisers. You need to have networks outside of it to stay sane, and keep perspective of the rest of the world. If you don’t, you might not have much to do scenes about. Get another hobby, volunteer somewhere, or reach out to old friends that you might not have seen in awhile.
You Haven't Actually Plateaued
Progress comes in small bites with improv, and you might not even feel or notice it, but it is happening. Trust in the process. I don’t think there is such thing as a bad rehearsal or show if you have the right mindset. Dissect what just happened, ask questions of your peers/coaches, and move on.
The point of all of this is to have fun and express your creativity. If you have the right attitude, and keep at it, you’ll be fine. If it isn’t fun anymore, then step away for a while and reassess the situation. Sometimes the best thing for your progress is to do anything else but improv for a little while
You got this.