Like many improvisers during the pandemic, a huge void made by lockdowns and restrictions needed to be filled. But I’m not talking about the creative void, arguably a creative void is easy to fill. Instead, other voids emerged, some consciously others not so consciously. Of course, for many of us, a massive financial void emerged which created stresses in its own right. Financial burdens aside, many people took stock of the lives they had been living, embraced new hobbies or outlets and patiently awaited a return to normal that never arrived. For me, I worked on fitness and the gym.
It didn’t take long before I realised that having a fitness regime is very similar to how we can and should look at our improv journeys, regardless of whether improv is a past time or a career move. With that in mind, here are 5 reasons keeping fit is like improv.
- Set yourself goals, but start small
I think everyone has a point in life where we say, “I want to get fit and look good” in not so many words. Most people have had gym membership at some point in their lives and many people end up cancelling. The desire to improve our fitness is there, but the willpower or mojo ends up diluting and disappearing. But why?
We can all agree that having goals are important but setting a goal of getting fit or looking good isn’t a SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timebound) goal if you aren’t defining how it can be achieved. What does “looking good” look like? What does being fit mean? Sadly, the prevalence of social media, Hollywood movies and glossy magazines depict photoshopped images of unrealistic bodies and steroid riddled men. (You don’t really believe that Kumail Nanjiani achieved that body in a year without the aid of enhancers? Spoiler alert: It’s impossible). When surrounded by these images and we feel we aren’t getting the results in the same time frame can be disheartening and deflating.
So how do we beat this? Goal setting needs to have long term and short-term goal. Long term goals can things like “I want to run a 5-minute mile” or “I want to lose 2 stone” or “I want to put 2 inches of muscle on my arms”. But without short term goals, we won’t be able to come close to achieving these. Short terms goals can be daily or weekly. “I want to spend 1 hour per day working out 4 times this week” or “I want to lift 2 extra reps in my exercises: is far easier to set.
Improv is no different. We see fantastic performers on the stage and instantly want to be as funny or charismatic as them. But then in our next workshop or show we suffer frustrations or feel our scenes didn’t land. It happens to us all.
Having those short-term goals are crucial. And while creativity can’t be measured, our effort can. “I’m going to initiate 3 scenes tonight”, “I’m going to not play my stock characters in tomorrow’s show” are far more measurable and rewarding when it comes to satisfying the needs of our journey.
Of course, goal setting can be challenge which is why you should….
- Get yourself a coach or a mentor
One of the best investments I have made in my fitness journey is having coach. And I don’t mean someone that I meet every once in a while, I mean someone I pay a monthly fee to who helps me with my fitness journey. He helps with goal setting and measuring, as well as kicking my ass daily to make sure I’m staying on track. (We don’t even have to meet in person to do this)
Improv is no different. Having a coach allows you to have someone help with setting and achieving your goals while being impartial with feedback on your progress. Just like fitness, you won’t see the difference looking in the mirror every day but your coach will be tracking your progress and give you the right guidance.
If you have limited access to coaches in your local city, remember your coach doesn’t need to be living in your country. Online coaching is just as effective as in person.
If you aren’t in a regular troupe then attending courses and taking classes with a good teacher will help with your journey. Have an upfront conversation with your teacher about your goals.
- Do you really have an ego?
As a man who was always person but never really put on much weight beyond my belly, the gym at first was an intimidating environment. And it was incredibly difficult not to ego lift, i.e., lift as heavy as I could for fear that someone would laugh if they saw me lifting puny weights. Form and technique suffered as a result (not to mention risk of injury). Nowadays I couldn’t give a right swinging mickey about who is in the gym and what they’re lifting. I have my goals to keep me focussed and my progress chart to complete after each exercise.
Ah as improvisers we already know this one! Or do we? I often feel that the ego concept is one of our ego hypocrisies in improv. Very few can probably say they improvise ego free. Do you as an improviser still take classes, attend jams, perform with inexperienced improvisers, get jealous or resentful of others? If so, then your ego is still lurking. But that’s ok though. We can manage our ego rather than “park it at the door” as are often told.
- Expose yourself in what you love, but don’t overdo it
I hate Romanian dead lifts. They require incredibly good form, and I can feel my back telling me to walk away each time. So, I don’t do them. My coach knows this and doesn’t put them in my workout plans. Life goes on and I’m still making progress.
Similarly, I watch fitness videos on YouTube from a variety of different of sources. I quickly learned that I must take many of them with a pinch of salt, especially those you aren’t “natty” (those who don’t take steroids are called natty). There is also a lot of misinformation out there, especially on Instagram and TikTok. But I found credible YouTube challenges that create meaningful content. (Shout out to Noel Deyzel, Justin Lee and Sean Nalewanyj).
Improv is no different. There are great books and teachers out there but not every book is going to win awards and not every teacher will fit your learning style or improv goals. While it’s important to expose yourself to resources it’s important not to overwhelm yourself. Not feeling the love for narrative improv? Well don’t do it! Curious for musical? Give it a try! Love the Harold, well soak up what’s out there! Find a teaching style draining or heady, its ok not to go back! Just like making friends, find your tribe and dip your toe outside it from time to time. Fortunately, improvisers don’t have to worry about social media influencers with their improv hacks but at the same time don’t let the online successes of improvisers in other creative mediums be something that lets your ego poke its head up for.
- Be authentic with others and true to yourself
In the gym I keep my focus on my goals and my fitness plan. I know when to ask for help, and I know when there is something in my plan I like or don’t like. I can be straight with my coach about things and he’s incredible supportive. I also need to maintain self-discipline. If I haven’t hit the gym by 4pm it’s not going to happen. Similarly, I’m fooling myself if I think I can go out on the beer and get up the next day. So, I need to plan accordingly to avoid feelings or regret or resentment. I also have friends in the fitness world I can chat with (I KNOW RIGHT, NON-IMPROV FRIENDS HOW WEIRD IS THAT?!), drink a protein shake with and just feel like a regular gym fan. It helps bring balance and fun to what sometimes is rigid and challenging.
Improv is the same. You don’t owe anything to improv or to anyone in the improv world. If none of this article resonates with you and you want to have a fleeting relationship with improv, then that’s cool as long as you recognise the relationship accordingly. Similarly, if you are working hard and feeling burnout, then take a break, step away and focus on you. In contrast, if you are working hard and want to achieve great things, ask yourself, “Do I have a coach, do I have SMART goals and am I connecting with improv in an authentic way?”
What’s next on your journey?
The improv world is about to re-open its doors again (in most of Europe anyway) and even Ireland has signalled an end to restrictions. It’s a good time to start thinking about what relationship you want to have with improv in the “new normal” (I vomit a little in my mouth every time I say new normal). I know of some friends, who have told me improv is going to be taking a back seat in their lives going forward and other friends who are even more committed to their improv journey. Whatever it is you choose, now is the time to be thinking about the next steps in your journey and finding the fun again!
There are lots of improv and gym coaches out there. Some personal recommendations include:
For improv coaches check out: