Get out of your head

Note: This is a reprint of a previous Improv Illusionist newsletter. If you’re not receiving my email newsletter, you can subscribe here and get my “Learning the Improv Illusion” series as a bonus.

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.

Hey there, what’s up?

It’s the cold season here in central Canada, with temperatures hovering in the -10C range. We’re still doing our improv shows online, but I guess the upshot of that is we don’t have a freezing commute to and from the theatre! I like being warm.

I guess that’s the spirit we need right now. To find positives where we can. Amor Fati. It can be fun to play this as an improv exercise, where one player is continuously pessimistic and the other finds the good in every situation. Forced positivity seems awkward, but if you do it long enough it can’t help but make you smile.

Let’s continue in that vein by talking about some ideas that could be holding back your improv…

Breaking improv’s mental blocks

Lately I’ve read some online comments from improvisers about being too much in their heads when they perform. It especially comes up when people talk about online improv. The format feels different (because it IS different) and causes actors to overthink.

In her book The Improviser’s Way, Katy Schutte makes an excellent point: the audience doesn’t notice. They can’t tell if you’re doing a scene on free-flowing autopilot or up-in-your-head manual. And for the most part they don’t care. If occasionally you have to think your way through a scene, then so be it.

However, if being in your head is a regular problem for you, you might be carrying one or more common mental blocks. Any of these can be a source of overthinking.

1. Trying to succeed. You may define success in many ways: laughs, applause, or positive feedback of any kind. But improv is ambiguous — there’s no one way to do it “right.” Scenes and stories can literally go on forever, so a “good” scene may eventually turn “bad” (or the other way around). Recognize that most of these definitions of success are out of your hands anyway. Focus on the process — listen and respond to the ideas in front of you.

2. Following rules. Especially common for new improvisers. You may have been taught to avoid asking questions, or teaching scenes, or “It’s my first day” characters. There are no rules in improv — anything can work in the right context. Listen, affirm ideas, and respond.

3. Enforcing logic. Do you need all your scenes to make sense? Sometimes it’s okay to embrace weirdness, to let things go a little haywire. You don’t need to justify everything. Stay with what’s happening now and try not to explain it or plan where it’s going. Often an answer will come to you if you let the scene play out.

4. Judging your skills. Many of my object work students say they’re “no good at mime.” Others feel like their characters are all flat. But judgement is relative — who are you comparing yourself to? Know that you’re doing your best. Play with your skills and explore what you actually can do. Experiment and let go of the need to be “right.” If you do this often enough, your skills will get better as a by-product.

We all carry mental blocks with us. Journaling your thoughts before and after shows can help you spot and work with yours.

Things to Try

This is a NEW monthly feature where I give you ideas for exercises or scenes to work out your physical improv skills.

  • February 14th is Valentine’s Day. Romantic scenes are so much better when you provide an exotic location or venue. Examples: fancy restaurant, Venetian gondola, a mountaintop hike.
  • Then again, dates don’t often go as planned, and a good romance story has obstacles. Is there something wrong with the food? Is there a couple nearby having an argument? What can you put into the stage picture to offset the romantic story?
  • Think about your approach to improv. Journal about any mental blocks you identify with in the feature above, or any others you discover. (Please share them with me so we can find ways to break them.)

Did you miss this?

NEW email series — “Learning the Improv Illusion”
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More for the Improv Illusionist

Emotional Safety Resources

Improv Exercises for Physical Skills

Improv Books — Reviews & Recommendations

Improv Podcasts — Reviews & Recommendations

Question(s) of the Month

Do you have any mantras or reminders you use to prepare your mindset for improv?

Hit Reply and share. I love to chat with readers, and it gives me ideas for future content to help the whole community.

Do you have any feedback about Improv Illusionist, either these newsletters or the website? Send me a message or just reply to this email. I read and respond to everything.

Hang in there. Stay safe. You’re doing great.

Back again on March 3rd.

Ex nihilo!

— Dave

David Raitt - Headshot

Hi, I'm David Raitt. I've been performing and teaching improv and sketch comedy for over 25 years.
MY MISSION: To help improvisers everywhere (re-)learn the power of environment, object work, and physicality in character and performance.

Learning the Improv Illusion

A free series introducing the techniques of Physical Improv.