Over the past several weeks, I have been in rehearsal for an improvisational theater troupe made up of High Schoolers from around Oregon. As a member of a network of young actors called Young Professionals, I have the opportunity to audition for and potentially be cast in several professional shows a year. This year, I was cast in Impulse – on the spot comedy. Impulse has won awards for outstanding comedic performance multiple times and regularly competes against adult professional improv groups.
When I told some of my friends that I attend 10 hours of rehearsal a work for this show as well as have five or more hours of homework, they were shocked. They asked me why practice is necessary for something that isn’t rehearsed or scripted. Clearly, they understood that rehearsals are crucial for plays, considering many things must be practiced and choreographed. However, many wondered why so much practice was crucial for a show that is different every night. What I have come to realize in addressing these questions is that preparing for an improv show requires the same skills as preparing for life.
William Longfellow’s poem ‘The Tide Rises The Tide Falls,’ Longfellow remarks on a world that is constantly changing – yet the ocean tides stay constant. Through death and life, creation and destruction, all throughout the passage of time the world around us changes every second. Yet in the midst of all this change, there are a few things that don’t change. In improv, no matter what is going on on stage, the only constant you have is yourself. Every second, everything around you is changing and will never be the same. No two shows are ever remotely similar, and the only constant is the troupe. In the midst of different worlds, the only constant is yourself.
Because there is no way to prepare for the changing circumstances, the only way to become skilled in improv is by cultivating who you are as a person. The three main skills an improv actor has to have are trust, discipline, and theatrical intelligence. All of these things have one thing in common: none of them come naturally, and none of them can be taught. The only way to improve your skills in this area is through practice.
I recently listened to a podcast where writers and musicians talked about creativity and what one has to do to become creative. Author Elizabeth Gilbert likened creating to being 99% oyster, 1% pearl. This means whenever you are trying to create something new, most time will be spent on creating something mediocre but if you put in the time to get that work out there, 1% of the work will become inspired and wonderful. For me, the rehearsals are the oysters and the performances are the pearl. You can not simply come out of the word work, expecting to have proficient amounts of trust, discipline, and intelligence and create wonderful work. In order to get to the work that is noteworthy, time must first be spent in the uninspired.