No One is on Your Level
A refrain that I’ve heard from many of our performers over the past year is that they want to be performing with other improvisers “at the same level” as them.
And to that, my response is simply always, “huh?”
I’ll elaborate a bit more on that “huh?” here.
When we start out as improvisers, we are all ostensibly starting from the same place. We’re in a group of eight or 10 other noobs who are all learning improv for the first time. Fun! We all get to learn the tenets and axioms of improv together for the first time. You feel so warmly towards these other brave souls who jumped in, knowing nothing, and used these tools to build a world together.
However, when you start to look a little more closely, this is rarely true. Introductory improv classes never consist of people coming in on equal footing. One student may be a former actress used to being on stage. Another may be a standup comedian looking to find some new material for their act. Another may be someone who has taken many improv classes at other theaters, but just moved to town. Your "peers" may include an executive who has never seen an improv show before, but who is trying to get better at public speaking. The class could - and often does - include at least one person who is painfully shy and trying to make new friends.
These people are not “on the same level.” They all walked in the door of your class on vastly different levels, with different life experiences, different exposures to performing arts, and different things that they find funny. However, in the eyes of improv, you are all exactly the same: beginners. And - you treat each other as such.
As beginners, you rely on your instructor and the principles of improv to get better and learn. You learn to say yes, then you learn to say and. Then, you start to absorb the vast litany of tips and tricks that make scenes work on stage. Then, you learn to make these scenes funnier and land with an audience. Then, you learn these things again and again and again and again.
As you grow through this process, you’ll notice that people who you consider your peers are on different steps of their journey than you are. Often, you’ll notice that you may be preoccupied with one element of improv while they’re preoccupied with another. Perhaps you’re having a lot of success with character work: you’re coming in with big emotional choices that are leading to great scenes and huge audience laughs. However, at the same time, someone else may be struggling to convey genuine emotion on stage - perhaps because they’ve struggled with conveying emotion in their real life. What, to you, may look like "bad scenework" is often a performer working through something personally challenging for them.
Does this mean that this person is no longer “on your level?” No! It means that they are working through a pit stop on their improv journey. And, the reality is, it’s working through these struggles that actually makes you a better performer.
“Failure is a part of life. Success teaches you nothing, but failure teaches you resilience. It teaches you to pick yourself up and try again.” - Sarah Morgan
I found that quote while searching for a different quote, but this one is much better. Sarah Morgan is a romance novelist, which probably can teach us a lot about improv. She really nails it here. If you are noticing that your fellow improvisers are struggling or even failing, then congratulations: you are around people who are learning. Not only are they learning what works in improv, but they are learning resilience, which is doubly, triply, quadrupley important to improvisers.
Because here is another secret: if you are getting better at improv, there are fewer and fewer people “on your level.” This can be a bit deceiving since many theaters are bureaucratic when it comes to teams and shows. If all the “good” people are on the “good” show, does that mean that the ultimate goal is to get good to perform with good people? No!
Long-tenured or professional improvisers are not good because they perform with other good people. In fact, the skill level of whom these improvisers perform with is irrelevant. Because they have gone through the trenches of learning, growing, and developing resilience, they have also developed the intrinsic skills needed to be confident, fun and funny performers.
I remember an early moment for me as an improviser where I was eavesdropping at the bar (RIP) next to ImprovBoston. I was listening to two “top” performers - one had been my teacher, and one had spent a year in Chicago and was back in town. They had just done a set that had absolutely killed. And here they were: sitting at the bar nitpicking their show like I would have done with the other students, petulantly talking about what they “should have” said or done to make the show even better.
That’s when I realized that there is no “top.” In fact, there is no “good.” There are people at different points of their journey. And, if improv is something you care about, this journey is many, many years long. It may be lifelong.
The lifelong goal is not to be on a “good” team. The goal is that you contribute to making the team that you are on good. If you’re not in the process of learning, growing, failing, and getting back on up again, you’re not contributing to that goal. In fact, the people who are showing the most resilience are the people who are best contributing to creating a fun team.
It is normal to find yourself frustrated with fellow performers. If you notice someone struggling or running into the same problem again and again, it’s instinctual to want to grab them and say “do it my way!” and you’ll be able to move forward in lockstep. However, as a performer, this is not your job. Directors, coaches and teachers are invested in the growth of each of you, and their job is to find ways to help each of you address your challenges and move forward with resilience.
In the case that you’re frustrated with a teammate or see a path for them to improve, a conversation with your director is the prudent step forward. By letting your frustration with a teammate fester, or worse, giving them a note yourself, you are undoing the trust that you have with your teammates. This is the same trust that we so generously give strangers in a beginner class. Why are we often so quick to revoke it when a teammate is struggling? I’m not sure.
As I’m writing this, I look back on the patience that so, so many of my improv colleagues have shown me over my 10-year career. I started as an incredibly timid improviser with no self-esteem. I struggled to step on stage and say anything at all. As I made more friends and had more people who showed me grace, I was able to develop a little more confidence and start to find my footing. Throughout my journey, I look back at the many elements of improv that I found challenging: character, emotion, connection, stage presence - none of this came easily to me. I went to my rehearsals, worked with my coaches, and graciously took my feedback over and over again.
I’m sure that over the past 10 years, there are times that my colleagues, friends, teachers and coaches have been frustrated with me. However, they never let this frustration get in the way of the work that I was trying to do. Instead, they showed me support - “yessing” and “anding” even my most terrible choices, in order to create shows and teams that we were all proud of.
Now, even as I perform with very little fear, I seek out working with the people who still show me patience as I am on a different point in my journey: returning to improv after becoming a mom to two pandemic babies. I’m not the same improviser I was three, or five, or ten years ago, and I now have different things that I struggle with as a performer. As I return to performing, working with performers on my “level” is not a thought: it’s working with performers who aren’t interested in judging one another as we all grow.
It’s not often phrased this way, but a core truth of successful improv is generosity of spirit. When you see a hilarious and confident improv show, what you’re certainly not seeing is a group of people who have all taken the same path to get there, or are even all on the same path now. Instead, what you’re seeing is a group of people who have chosen to suspend judgment of one another and instead show each other grace, faith and support, so that they can move forward through their challenges and reciprocate that support.
This generosity is needed even more so as we returned to improv after the nearly two years of theater closures. Performers, teachers, directors and coaches are all working a dormant muscle. We are missing nearly two full years that would have otherwise been filled with improv education, where students and performers would have gotten feedback and learned good habits. The pandemic made it much harder to show unbridled grace to one another, but re-learning how to do so is paramount to improv’s success.
There is no same level. There is no same experience. If you’re looking around and seeing someone who isn’t at the same place you are, you’re seeing someone on the road to their own success. And perhaps, showing them generosity will be a step on your journey as well.
Further recommended reading on this!
How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth by Will Hines (Chapter: “Be Healthy”)
The Vast Plateau of Competency by Rachel Klein