Coming Back From A Hiatus: Part 1

For Improvisers with Less Than 3 Years Experience  // Author: Bobby McCosky

Improv can be mentally draining. If you are a steward of it, you feel obligated to read every book and blog you can. You are probably listening to about ten podcasts about improv or that are improvised. On top of it all, there is the physical toll it can take on you. You may rehearse with several groups a week, on top of taking classes, on top of seeing shows. It adds up quickly, and a little break here and there is healthy.

But how do you come back after a hiatus? For the purposes of simplicity, let’s say that you did improv for about 2 years, graduated a 5 level course, and then you took 6 or more months off. You didn’t play on any teams or do any sort of coaching. You found a different hobby or you spent more time with family and friends. This alone is good for your mental health but also good for your improv. Sometimes, we get so caught up in this art, that we don’t live an actual life, and our improv scenes can become meta or just feel disconnected from reality. Living your life has sort of reminded you of what it means to act naturally.

But you have that itch and you want to get back into it. Should you start taking classes? If so, which ones? What level? Should you just start a team? If so, how do you do that?

First, let me say this – and I don’t mean it to be negative or dissuade you from returning right where you left off – but if you were playing with a class or team and they continued performing improv during the time you were away, odds are you are not going to be able to jump right back in with them. They have been continuously learning and working as a unit since you’ve been gone. Even if you are a great player and you pick up things quickly, you will more than likely throw off the group mind, and it will take a lot of time away from their growth to get you back up to speed. They may be up to do this, or they may not be – but don’t be surprised if they say no. That’s like asking, “Can you hold my place in line?” 10 hours before a concert. Don’t be too surprised if your friends don’t feel comfortable doing it, or if it upsets some people who were waiting there longer, even if you technically arrived first. But what now?

Forming an Indie Team

You can always start a new indie team and find a coach. Maybe the pals you played with before have missed playing with you. Put out some feelers, see who is interested, and then, with YOU being the one who wants to start this, figure out scheduling for the new group and find a coach. Your teammates will appreciate that you are coming back fresh, getting stuff done and not just putting the burden of responsibility on them to manage yet another improv venture in their lives that is your pet project. This can be a really good opportunity to work your way back into the community without creating too much resentment from students at a training center.

Jumping Mid-Way Into Classes

You also might want to consider starting over and re-taking improv classes offered at your training center. “But Bobby, that sucks. I already spent a lot of time and money on improv. I don’t want to go back to the beginning.” Trust me, I 100% understand this sentiment. Improv is not necessarily the cheapest thing in the world, plus you’ve put in a lot of work and may want to move up the ladder a little more quickly.

If you really don’t want to start from ground zero, see what classes are being offered at a level 2 or 3 around your town. Ask if the theaters will let you skip ahead, and if they do, go for it. But, let me reemphasize that if you jump into a level 3 with a group of 10 people who have been going through the courses together, no matter how great you are, you’re going to have missed some important lessons in the group’s journey. You need to be willing to put in the work of having discussions with the coach and your fellow players to make sure you can get on the same page. Don’t just assume, “I did this level already. I got this.” Instead, assume, “I need to listen to everything my coach is saying, and I need to get to know my teammates and their thoughts on improv.”

Starting Completely Over

What about the benefits of going back and starting at the beginning round of classes? We all know the negatives. It costs more money and you feel like you are retreading old ground. But have you ever honestly evaluated the pros of starting over? For one, you get to see that joy of people “getting” improv. All those “ah-ha” moments that make us feel like we’re understanding improv – and that make us fall in love with it – you get to see first hand. Those moment become more sparse as your journey goes along, and seeing new people experience those moments can sort of breathe a new life into your improv. It’s the old cliché of pretty much every Disney teen sports movie, but gosh darnit, it’s true! Seeing that love of the sport simply for the love of it instead of any delusions of grandeur is refreshing.

On top of that, in earlier classes you get the joy of doing scenes with “mistakes.” If you have performed improv long enough, you’ve probably received a lot of notes stating “don’t do XYZ”, and you’ve gotten good at avoiding those pitfalls. With newer improvisers, they haven’t had the luxury of time and feedback, so you’ll re-learn how to navigate choices or situations that are tough or don’t pop up often. Things like denying what you said (“We’re not in a toy store, we’re at school.”), or someone starting off as crazy as possible (“I’m a talking unicorn made of cereal!”), or doing basic teaching scenes (“No, move your hand like this, that’s how you dance.”) I like to think of it as going to see your niece’s little league team, after being at a major league game. Yeah, the major leagues are the absolute pinnacle of the sport and the athletes are world class, but rarely are mistakes made. Although that is beautiful, it can become a bit predictable and stagnant. Whereas when you go to see your niece’s little league game, there are kids running the wrong way on the bases, an inning where a team gets like 15 runs, error after error after error, and it can be so exciting! You don’t worry about perfection because you just want them to fall in love with the game, and have a good time!

Being more experienced and retaking a lower level class can really show an improv community that you are in this simply for your love of improv. I have had students want to skip level 1 because they took an improv class in high school 4 years ago, or skip level 1 because they just feel like level 1 is too easy. In both these cases, I explained to these students that starting at the beginning gets you on the same page with all your fellow students. You’re learning together and there are no shortcuts to improv. You can only grow by making mistakes, and you can only know people when they open up and are vulnerable with you. An introductory improv class is the perfect place for both of these.

All of the above tips are for experienced improvisers with just a few years under the belt. But what if you have been doing improv for a long time, and you move to a new city? Do you still have to start back at the beginning? Or what if you did improv for 10 years, went away for a few years, and want to return? I’ll cover all of that in Part 2, so stay tuned!