This month’s improv tip is written by Shawn Westfall, BossaNova’s improv guru.
For a professional improv comedian, even “play” becomes work from time to time. In this article, Shawn Westfall shares his personal reflections of an important turning point in his 10-year teaching journey, with valuable lessons for us all about how and when to step aside and start anew.
Where I live, in Washington, DC, August is normally considered “down time.” Congress is usually not in session, and members head home to reconnect with their constituents and districts. And since DC is kind of a company town (only in this case the “company” is the government), most of the business efforts that support the company see work slow to a halt. Many DC residents use August as an opportunity to reenergize by taking those much-needed vacations (or stay-cations). And of course DC isn’t alone: across the nation or globe, many families and individuals will sometime this month begin packing suitcases or duffels and load them onto planes or trains or Tetris-ing them into SUVs for those annual two-week treks to see family, friends, loved ones or visit exotic and perhaps not-so-exotic places—all in the name of taking a break from our responsibilities. To retool, reenergize, and just gain a better perspective on the hows and whys in which we spend our waking hours. We do it because most of us intuitively understand that we need to take a break from “work.” But are we as good at recognizing when we need a vacation from “play” as well?
On top of concurrently holding down day jobs, I’ve been teaching improv now for about 10 years, performing it for much, much longer, and, for the most part, have enjoyed every single minute of it. That is, until about four years ago I noticed that I wasn’t having as much fun as I used to on stage. Things weren’t coming easily. Scenes either weren’t flowing, or would somehow get confusing for all involved. So much so, in fact, that I would come off stage and critique every choice I made. Even worse, following unsuccessful shows, which seemed to be happening with more and more frequency, I would begin to look for and try to find fault with some of those who had shared the stage with me. All of which flummoxed me: this was my “fun,” right? My day job paid the bills. But improv was where I went to blow off steam, to bring my frustrations into relief through the power of play and laughter and selfless collaboration. What was going on? Why had it stopped being fun?
Then my creative partner, who’s not only a brilliant performer and improviser, but also a rabid baseball fan, reminded me of a moment in the movie “Field of Dreams” that brought some welcome perspective. If you’re not familiar with the movie, here’s the basic premise: Ray, played by Kevin Costner, has been hearing voices while out plowing his Iowa cornfield, voices that beckon him to build a full-scale baseball diamond in the middle of it. Never one to question where or how or what Karma decides to do with him, he does it, resulting in a series of adventures in which legendary baseball players, players long dead, begin appearing on his field for baseball games. And Ray has, courtesy of his willingness to listen to the voices, a front row seat on baseball history. But there’s a problem: every evening the players disappear into Ray’s cornfield without ever inviting him to follow them. One day Ray gets frustrated, and confronts the ghost of legendary baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson, asking why he hasn’t been invited. “I’ve done everything I’ve been asked without ever once asking ‘what’s in it for me?’” Frustrated even further, he pleads: “What’s in it for me?” Shoeless Joe Jackson’s reply is clarifying: “Maybe,” he says, “you’re not ready, Ray.”
Being reminded of Shoeless Joe Jackson’s reply clarified things for me, too. When it came to improv, I’d stopped having fun and instead been unconsciously asking “what’s in it for me?” And the lack of an answer resulted in resentment and selfishness, rather than seamless, fun, selflessly collaborative scenes. So what did I do? I took a “vacation” from improv. For an entire month I didn’t teach or perform or even think about improv. In fact, I read books, went to plays, went to movies, went to museums. I once again took the time to refuel and retool. I was reminded of how often art needs other and more art to survive, and how often art forms influence other art forms. It wasn’t easy to go from more classes and shows a week than I can usually count to zero, even if temporarily. I had to manage others’ expectations of me, and mine of myself. I had to let go of a lot of things, literally and figuratively. When I returned, I returned for the right reasons. And the results were staggering: within a few months the improv duo my partner and I had formed won a highly competitive improv competition. And we began getting asked to perform with even more and greater frequency. It was effortless, like I wasn’t even trying.
The next time you feel that your “hobbies” are becoming more and more of a burden, ask yourself if it isn’t because you’ve allowed the fun of the activity, which is what initially drew you to it, to leave. Consider gaining a different perspective by giving yourself a vacation (you’ve probably earned it). Do something—anything—else and it will be readily apparent how much you were making it more like “work,” how much you’ll miss it upon your return to it, it, as well as how quickly you’ll once again be reaching your goals once you effortlessly take it up again. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m due back on stage.