Fear and Failure
Welcome to another issue of the Improv Illusionist Newsletter, a monthly update from me, David Raitt, with a focus on the improv skills of environment, object work, and physicality in character and performance. I’m honoured by your interest.
September was a weird month. Many strange things happened to me over just a few weeks. (Check out “Things to Try” below for some of them.)
But as I was cursing my bad luck, I realized that I’d also been lucky that the outcomes weren’t worse. Yes, I was in a car collision, but I wasn’t injured and my insurance took care of the whole thing. Yes, a squirrel invaded my home, but there was only a little mess and no major damage. It’s all about changing your perspective.
And we can also do this to relieve the pressures of Fear and Failure in improv…
Fear and Failure
Improv is all about failure, or rather, risking failure. Every time we make something up in front of an audience, we risk creating something that doesn’t work, either for the audience or the performers. Even the most accomplished troupes can never guarantee a 100 percent successful performance.
All improvisers know this. We’re constantly told it’s okay to fail. And yet we still avoid risks. We still beat ourselves up when a scene doesn’t go well, or a joke falls flat, or an instructor points out three moves we could have made to get ourselves out of a narrative corner. We regularly back away in fear. We have permission to fail, but we don’t often take it.
This can be especially true where physical skills are involved. Environment and object work are easy to learn but tough to practice. It feels awkward to work with an object you’re not actually holding in your hands. So we protect ourselves by claiming we “can’t do mime,” and shy away from it next time.
It doesn’t help that we’re wired to avoid failure. For early humans, failure on the hunting ground meant injury or death. In the social sphere, it meant ridicule or exile. These ancient patterns are still built into us. When we judge ourselves going wrong, we shut down to protect ourselves.
So, how to solve this problem? How do we embrace failure more easily, even if it scares us? Like any skill, we have to practice! By embracing it more often, failure feels less scary. We come to know that a bad scene won’t kill us. To get better at failing, we simply have to fail more.
Expect the challenge
Mindset feeds your fear. If you walk into improv hoping all will go well, you’ll then notice and focus on everything that doesn’t. Can you start with the expectation that things won’t go well?
This doesn’t mean you expect the show to be bad — just challenging. Because improv IS challenging. It’s not easy to create scenes from nothing. If you remind yourself of that in advance, you can still embrace accepting the challenge. That seems like a better starting point than thinking “Oh god, I hope I don’t suck tonight!”
Be deliberately bad
Especially in workshops, why not choose to be deliberately bad once in a while? By spending time with your bad habits, you get better at identifying them in performance, and avoiding the problems that result.
Do you get hung up on the “rules” some improvisers insist must be followed? Try exploring exercises that break these rules, like Questions Only or Block Everything. You’ll learn these rules aren’t as mandatory as they seem, or at least how to maneuver out of a tough spot if it arises.
Every opportunity you get, take notes about your improv. You simply can’t change what you’re not aware of. Note down what you did, what others said, whether people laughed, how you’re feeling about it. This helps you spot patterns, learn what scares you the most, and reveals where your confidence lies.
Try to balance your notes between positive and negative. What worked and what didn’t? Positive notes are a gift to your future self when you’re feeling bad about your skills.
Chase the edge
When you learn your own patterns, you know what you should focus on in learning to manage fear. Do you regularly avoid getting up first for exercises in class? Do it. Do you avoid asking for physical offers? Do it.
You don’t have to do this all the time. But if you try doing just one thing that feels uncomfortable every time you work, you’ll get better at chasing the edge.
If this feels difficult, try setting a softer goal and work up to it. For example, maybe you go second in the next exercise, and get used to that before jumping up first.
Listen to feedback from instructors, directors, and fellow team members. Write it down and commit to learning from it. A “bad” note is not a reflection of your worthiness. If you really disagree with a note, just say “Thank you,” then quietly disregard it. But try to see what value you can take from it first.
Do more improv
Check out this video of the man himself, Keith Johnstone, talking about his 5,000 Faces project. Keith wasn’t great at drawing, the same way we might not feel great about our improv skills.
“Because I’m no good at drawing faces, I would get so depressed if I did 200 bad faces. I’d give up. … [But] if you’re going to draw 5,000 faces and you do 2,000 crappy ones, you don’t care. Because you can’t avoid the mistakes. You learn by making mistakes. … If you’re failing, you’re learning!”
How often do you perform, either in shows or elsewhere? Find more opportunities to work your skills — it takes the pressure off you to make any one show great.
Note also how Keith says you can’t see the progression from day to day in his face drawing. But if you flip forward one hundred pages, you can definitely notice a difference. Your skills won’t improve just because someone gives you a good tip in a workshop, or because you’ve read another book. They improve over time, from all your experience.
The only way you get that experience is to claim it. Practice your skills, by yourself and with others. Take workshops. Hold rehearsals. Jam with others online or in their basement. Talk with each other about what works and what doesn’t.
Take the long view of your skills. Improvisers in my classes often feel bad because at the end of several weeks, they still don’t feel they’re any better. But it’s only been a few weeks, and likely with only a few in-class scenes and hopefully a few minutes of homework (if that). Keep on working, on and on.
Keep putting yourself out there
The quickest way to get better with failure is to fail more. Understand that improv is usually about finding yourself backed into a corner and figuring out how to escape. You can’t get comfortable with that unless you’re experienced in failing in the first place.
Things to Try
Ideas for exercises or scenes to work out your physical improv skills.
I had several odd things happen to me in the past month. For fun, I thought I’d use just a few of them as ideas for Things to Try…
- (My home was invaded by a squirrel who’d been storing its winter food in my air ducts.) Try a scene where you encounter a wayward animal. Explore what it’s like to play an animal.
- (I was in a car collision. Two other cars crashed nearby and one of them bounced into me. Luckily no one was injured.) Practice your improvised driving. Work on showing the movements while talking with a partner, and get feedback on how it looks.
- (I moved houses and picked up all sorts of minor injuries — cut elbow, stubbed toe, bruised heel…) A scene with an unrelated activity helps you practice keeping your object work going.
- (Sadly, a close relative of mine died.) Play a funeral or memorial scene. How can you capture a sense of the place where the service is taking place?
More for the Improv Illusionist
News and Links
Question(s) of the Month
Do we fear failure too much? What tips can you share to help others overcome their fear of failure?
Hit Reply and share. I love to chat with readers, and it gives me ideas for future content to help the whole community.
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I’m excited to keep in touch with you every month. Back again on November 3rd!