Guest Post By Katie Nunn
If you haven’t had the chance, be sure to check out my short interview about improv and breaking out of your comfort zone on the Treehouse Lifestyle Podcast.
When I was a tot, I learned the phrase “jack of all trades” before I ever heard anyone follow it up with “master of none.” It was too late. I had already decided that being a renaissance man was the way to go. What a romantic idea! This value placed on versatility was reinforced in my upbringing in traditional theater. Earning a living as an actor is hard, and if you can choreograph, or hang lights, or sew costumes, you are more likely succeed in the business.
If spontaneity is the essence of improv, versatility should be the goal for the performer. If you are to honor the moment, you must prepare yourself for any moment. Becoming more well rounded is essential; it’s how we evolve and how we keep this work fun. Here are a couple tips to expand your repertoire:
There are over 7 billion people on the planet. Don’t play the same person twice. If you find that you have slipped into a familiar role, challenge yourself to find nuance in the character. Discover something new about them. How is this overbearing mother different from the last thirty overbearing moms you portrayed?
We tend to find a comfort zone of emotional reaction, often choosing a feeling we experience frequently in real life but cannot or do not express. Let’s find more. Let’s choose from the broad spectrum of human emotion the perfect response to our scene partner in that moment. Let’s choose the one that makes them look like a badass, not the one that makes us feel safe onstage.
Change up Your Playmates
We know you love the people you graduated class with, but playing with the same eleven people is not the same as learning to improvise. Go to jams, rehearse with different groups, or join a new team. When the time comes that you get to share the stage with one of your heroes, you will be thankful that your learned to play with lots of different people instead of just slowly learning to predict the moves of your best buds.
Be an Entertainer
Learn to sing, dance, rap, stagefight. Do short form. Take an acting class. Write jokes and tell them at open mics. Any of it. All of it. Won’t it feel awesome when the moment calls for it and you can commit like a boss?
Finding Your Voice
This isn’t like other art forms; you do not need to brand yourself. Stop trying to find your voice. Serve the moment. Serve your ensemble. Sticking to one playing style is self-limiting and will quickly reach the point of diminishing returns. Don’t pigeonhole yourself. You can’t just be the straight man, or the clown, or the satirist, or the game guy. You have to be all of them and more. In a recent interview in The New Yorker, Jordan Peele, half of Comedy Central’s Key and Peele said “the one thing that you don’t figure out as an improviser or a sketch performer is ‘What am I?’ ”
Diversify Your Portfolio
In his last trip to St. Louis, Bill Arnett asked the workshop “what would you do if you were asked to put up a two-act show at the biggest theater in town?” We all dreamed big for a second. “What if you were asked to put up a show across from the baseball stadium immediately after a game? Would it be the same show?” There are multitude of improvisational styles, and they are all valid and worthy of performance. A savvy improviser has played bars, festivals, and family-friendly shows. They know what to do and when. Like practitioners of Kung fu, they know how to use their environment to their advantage. Just as with personal style of play, don’t stick to one genre of improv. Moonlight doing a show way outside your norm.
Above all else, bring diversity into your life. You can’t eat, sleep, and breathe comedy alone and still expect to produce quality material. You have to live a life so that your material is based on something. When I was in Chicago, I witnessed this encounter every week: a new student eagerly asks the bar how they can get better. Younger performers offered up advice, “go see shows, form a team with your friends, and practice in your apartment.” The seasoned vets always said the same thing, without fail. “Read a lot, get a job, get fired, get a hobby, fall in love, get dumped, travel.” Do something, anything, other than comedy. Take an interest in the real world that you live in. I’ve learned as much about improv from cooking and baseball as I have from actually doing improv. The first draft of this was an ode to the utility infielder.
During a podcast for Improv Nerd, Jimmy Carrane asked improv institution Noah Gregoropoulos what he learned from Del Close. Noah responded “that everything is connected . . . He was interested in everything. Everything mattered . . . The whole world is available to you, and it’s related in all kinds of unexpected ways.”
So get out there. Hit the library. Get some sunshine. Get laid. It might just give you the inspiration you need to push yourself onstage.