A man once told me that his relationship with Improv was abusive. It took his money, destroyed his self-esteem and he kept coming back, apologising and begging for more.
It’s not an uncommon story either, and although I don’t particularly like his turn of phrase, I agree with the sentiment. Improv can be the best of times and the worst of times, like an indecisive watchmaker and during this absolute creative drought that’s been semi-forced upon the arts by COVID I’ve been doing a lot of reflection. This short blog post is about a time when I very nearly fell completely out of love with the artform and nearly gave it up all-together. It’s a true story of frustration, jealousy, confusion, and ultimately happiness.
January 2019 and I am riding high. I’ve been doing improv for little over a year and have just come of the back of a number of consecutive shows with a local group. I’m enjoying my time on stage and working with the players, after a couple rough shows the chemistry is clicking and I feel like I have an idea what everybody on stage will do, there or thereabouts. Whatever it is, it’s working. I’m not getting much feedback apart from the after-show natter where we’d all grab a drink and laugh about the funny moments. But I’m not worried, I’m getting time on stage.
And then I’m not.
A few months pass and I’m not being given any time on stage. I don’t think I’m not as good as I was but a few weeks earlier, but apparently I’ve not done enough to earn my place. Well, I can only assume that as no one has spoken to me about what I’ve done wrong, or rather not done right. No feedback , no communication, I’m just not getting on stage.
I speak to a few other people on the team who also seem to have been frozen out. They don’t know why they’ve not been asked to perform either, just that they’re not being asked. No one has given them a reason why they’re no longer good enough to be on stage but they’re just expected to accept it. Or, worse in my opinion, they’re expected to be available every gig on the “off-chance” they’re needed with no guarantee of stage time, despite giving up evening after evening, week after week.
I’m not completely frozen out. On a few occasions I’d get a message couple days before a show (or on more than one occasion the day before or even on the day) and be told that I was needed. I’d almost always say yes, of course, because being on stage is a drug. But afterwards I’d just be frustrated. I didn’t like my role as substitute with no communication.
So, in May 2019 I seriously thought about quitting improv. I had seen people with less experience with me take my place on stage, I’d started to see the inherent classist problem with growth in the community, and also slowly realised that many of the people in charge were either incompetent, offensive, neglectful or in some cases all three. I’d lost sight of what I loved about improv, buried beneath issue after issue, politics, misogyny, and ego.
I spoke to a group of friends about this malaise I was suffering with and discovered they were feeling something very similar. I spoke to people outside my immediately circle and aired my grievances with them and they agreed that something wasn’t right. If I had lost the spark then we needed to do something to bring it back.
In June, Tiny Stories Improv performed our first show at the Box of Frogs Jam in Birmingham. The people I was on stage with were all very close to me, I trusted them implicitly and I had no pressure to be funny. We could do what we wanted, making a good improv show for the audience, and, above all, having fun. It was a rough show, with moments of dead air, panic, and thrill. But a week earlier we had barely filled a twenty minute rehearsal and here we were, doing a 40 minute slot and working hard to make it good.
It was everything I had missed. We got laughs, lots of laughs, had a mix of raw, harsh emotion, with the rollercoaster of comedy and sadness, and felt like we’d earned the reaction we’d got. Coming off the stage I was tired, sweaty, and very, very, happy. The people on that with me that night had helped me find the spark again, and I’d like to think found it in themselves as well. The debrief was brilliant, all laughing at the highlights from the performance, talking about what we thought hadn’t worked so well, promises to rehearse this and that, and a sense of release.
I’d gone from wanting to quit the artform to being totally rejuvenated in just a few weeks. Not just with Tiny Stories either, it helped every part of my improv life. I couldn’t fix the issues that plagued the scene, but I could help to grow and develop it. I couldn’t assuage the personal politics that bled through, but I could try to ensure that the groups I was involved with were relaxed and weren’t led my ego (as much as possible).
Tiny Stories Improv, the jams that were taking place at Deacon Street, ImproVine, the Same Faces, the courses and lessons hosted by MissImp, the whole Sheffield scene; everything I was involved with in improv throughout late 2019 and 2020, it wouldn’t have happened if the people I cared about hadn’t been there for me when I was so close to quitting. The Leicester Comedy Festival shows, selling out gigs, and meeting new people, none of it would have happened.
I’m not sure what the moral or lesson of this is. 2020 and 2021 have proven themselves to be hard years where we’ve all wanted to just flip a table and give up. I think I want to say that you shouldn’t give up, but it’s more nuanced than that. Giving up is fine and valid, but before you do, take a step back, talk to people and ask for advice. Voice your concerns, voice your grievances, and see what changes are made or that you can make. It may give you a new perspective.