FIVE THINGS I’ve learned from being in the same improv team for five years
Today is the fifth anniversary of my science fiction improv team, Project2.
I know this because we stuck “April the 4th be with you” on our very first poster and thought we were funny.
Also, let’s unpack that first sentence for a second…
SCIENCE FICTION IMPROV TEAM
Boy, those are some uncool words right there. All in a line, one after another. “Science fiction” is bad enough but sticking “improv team” onto the end of it — I may as well superglue Vulcan points onto my ears, get some business cards printed up that say TOTAL NERD and only wear t-shirts that are a mash-up of a minimum of two pop cultural properties.
(Just kidding. I’ve done all those things already.)
And anyway, that first sentence also contains FIFTH ANNIVERSARY and I have to say that those words make me feel super proud. I’m proud of the work that I’ve put in to become better at an art form I love. I’m proud to be associated with two other performers that I hold in such high regard.
I’m proud we haven’t killed each other. Yet.
So whether you’ve just formed a team and are wondering how you’ll get through the next few months or you’ve been with your team so long you count the span in decades, here’s a quick run down of what I’ve learnt over the last five years.
ONE — You always need to look at the bigger picture
Looking on the show page of our website, Project2 have improvised 118 shows. That’s roughly one every two weeks since we started in 2012. We’ve performed in front of hundreds of people at big improv festivals and sent our audiences roaring to their feet. We’ve also flailed wildly in total free-fall panic for two dozen people above a pub in London. We’ve stunk up the place as invited guests at someone else’s night and performed beautiful, lyrical pieces of slow-burn comedy in rooms where we barely outnumber the punters. After a while you realise, it doesn’t matter how good that last show was (or how soul-destroyingly bad) — in the final analysis, it’s just a show.
There’ll be another.
I’ve learned not to get too hung up on any given performance — what you start to strive for is gradual improvement on the macro scale. If, as a team, you’re better — more connected, a stronger support network, more at ease — than you were last year, then you’re doing it right.
TWO — You’re running a family business
Improv teams start off in the first flush of improv lust. You love each other. You want to be on stage together over and over and over again in every conceivable scenario. You don’t really care what other people think. You know what feels good and you’ll take any stage time, in any room, in front of any audience to feed that desire. It’s a fun time but it doesn’t last. A year down the line you realise you’re essentially the improv equivalent of a married couple (who also run a business together) — ideally you still think each other are awesome but arranging rehearsals is a living nightmare, people’s ‘quirks’ aren’t so cute anymore and every now and then you notice yourself just going through the motions on stage. Also there’s money involved and bills to pay and one of you is doing most of the chores.
My advice is always keep in mind what you love about your team mates — tell them when they do amazing work, be punctual and respectful with your share of the improv admin (especially if one of you is forever pulling it together for the rest of you) and don’t let resentments fester. Talk to each other. You’re family.
THREE — “Comparison is the thief of joy”
Theodore Roosevelt said that. It was a very wise thing to say. Interestingly Mark Twain said something very similar “Comparison is the death of joy” but which one said it better?
(A little comparison humour for you there)
Either way, at various points down the years, one or other of you is going to appear more successful than the other members — they’ll get higher profile guest spots, more teaching opportunities, greater improv kudos (which are like Nectar Points but not exchangeable for goods or services).
This will be especially true if you improvise regularly with Katy Schutte.
You’re gonna have to get over that shit quickly. Don’t let it get a foothold. Remember that the flip side of working with the absolute best people is … that everyone else is going to realise that they’re brilliant too. (Duh!) Improv is such a collaborative art form, if you have the privilege of working with people who EVERYONE wishes they were working with then don’t take it for granted. Be happy for them (and know they’ve probably had the same thoughts about you at some point).
Stop comparing your insides with other people’s outsides and get on with making beautiful improv together.
FOUR — Keep trying new things
Got a show that really works? That brings in audiences and consistently entertains them?
Stop doing it for six months and challenge yourselves to make something new.
It might be an utter disaster but you’ll learn a massive amount. You won’t get complacent and the best new things you create will bleed back into your old show anyway. Also try non-improv things — write sketches, make films, form a Crazy Golf team — whatever seems like fun. It’ll help your longevity no end and, once again, it’ll rebound back into your improv in delightful and unexpected ways.
FIVE — You can’t make new old friends
The longer you manage to survive as an improv team, the more valuable your teammates become. Because you can’t instantly manufacture a long and connected history with another player. You need to live it TOGETHER, one gig at a time, over many years. That’s the only way to get that kind of experienced, cohesive group mind. There are no shortcuts.
One of my first improv teachers told me that to become a great improviser you need to do two things regularly:
i) play with a large and diverse group of randomers who will take you completely by surprise
ii) find yourself a team you trust and stick with them week in, week out
Nowadays there are improv jams most days of the week. It’s pretty easy to find and throw yourself into performance situations with people you don’t know. But performers who have seen you at your very best and your very worst, who have an intrinsic understanding of the way your mind works, who move when you move because it’s in their bones — that’s rare and wonderful and invaluable. Hold on to those people.
So, that’s what I’ve got…
I’m in a science fiction improv team called Project2. There are three of us (more than three when you count the talented musical and technical improvisers who have joined us over the years). They are my improv family and my best friends. I admire them so much it hurts. They make me crazy.
We might have another five years together or we might not make it to 2018. Either way they’ve made me a better improviser and I’ll always be grateful for the time, energy and talent they’ve poured into the worlds we’ve created together.
I know that makes me sound like an over-emotional goofball but as I said,
I’m in a SCIENCE FICTION IMPROV TEAM, I know my place in the world.
I’ve found my tribe.
You can read my friend Katy’s amazing blog about her 12 years with The Maydays (a group I’m also in) here.