The only way out is through

Life can get pretty messy and complicated and scary at times, can’t it? Just like being in the middle of an improv scene when you aren’t quite sure where it is going. I know every improviser can relate to that feeling of panic/excitement when the audience is looking at you and the house is dead quiet and you have no f-ing clue where the scene is headed… and it doesn’t seem to be headed anywhere good.

When I performed Theater Sports in Seattle it was at just these moments when the judges or the MC would whistle down the scene, thereby ending it or “putting it (and by extension everyone in the theater) out of its misery.” After I left Theater Sports I began performing with a group doing scene-based improv. We didn’t have judges and we weren’t performing a “competitive” improv format, but for years we kept the whistle. It felt so safe. We knew if a scene started tanking we could just kill it and move on, saving ourselves the embarrassment of struggling through a crappy scene in front of an audience.

I know why the whistle exists. When you are performing in front of paying people you want the most successful show possible. But right now I’m wondering about its long term effects. Sure, in the short term you don’t have to make the audience sit through crap, and you, the performers, don’t have the downer of struggling through a dog turd of a scene either. Nobody feels down, everyone feels good, happy, having fun, cue the puppy dogs and clown balloons.

When my group finally got rid of our whistle it was not without some serious trepidation. What would we do if a scene began to tank? What if (gasp) we had a sucky show? We did eventually rid ourselves of that safety blanket whistle, and you know what? Something magical happened… we had crappy scenes, and frankly some sucky shows…. But something else happened as well. We began to save each other. Not having a whistle meant that there was literally no way out of the scene unless we got through it. We had to find endings, we had to figure out how to create moments of tension, we had inject our own energy into those flagging scenes. We were not always successful, but as time went on we got better and better at doing it. Talk about trust. In a PRS show there is no sitting on the sidelines watching. We are all actively engaged in every scene, ready to jump in and catch whoever, whatever, is falling. In the long run, the way we got better at improv was by getting through the struggle.

Buddhists philosophy states that life is pain. I once thought that idea was quite sad and defeatist. If life is pain, why bother? Now I see how I have misunderstood the idea. Of course life is pain. Life is struggle and struggle is painful. But, the struggle is the point. It would be great if we could all blow the whistle of life sometimes (insert your own dirty joke here), but that ain’t how it works. You can try to ignore your struggles, but they will always come back to bite you in the ass (bonus points if you can think of a second dirty joke here). To mix my metaphors: St George was right. We have to face our dragons, even if we aren’t sure how.

So, suit up you Buddhist/improv warriors, it’s probably gonna get messy.

Today’s Improvmantra: Live in the struggle.


About improvmantra

What is an improv mantra? An improv mantra is a phrase you repeat to yourself just before you go on stage, and continue to keep in your mind while you are in a scene. An effective mantra makes you a better improviser. Todd Erler, like all living creatures, has been doing improv every day since he was born. He has been performing improv on stage for more than 20 years. He is a teacher, writer, musicain, director, actor, and member of The Portable Reality Show.
This entry was posted in Attitude, Fear, Improv Life Lessons, Taoism/Zen and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The only way out is through

  1. Jonathan Hibbs aka Uncle Jonathan says:

    Edit time: RPS? seriously? Come on man, it’s PRS..Portable Reality Show. #2 “but they will always come back to bite us in ass” What is that Russian?
    ps. Great blog! I love you!

  2. Jordan says:

    Really good stuff, Todd. I just went to an improv workshop last Sunday – and it just so happened that I sucked that day. I was numb and couldn’t think of anything to do in most of my scenes. It was so painful and uncomfortable and unenjoyable. I just wanted to get out of that room. This comes after a series of events in my life where I am putting myself out there and taking risks, and ending up feeling awkward and cringing at myself. So this post really helped me! I am trying hard to remember that I am not that important and that people really don’t care if I suck or not. Self-consciousness is arrogance. And, besides, sucking is character building! I am going to go out there and suck! Hooray!

    P.S. I love that improv exercise when you purposely try to make a boring scene. What often happens when you take away the pressure to be funny or interesting is that the scene is quite rich.

  3. Great post that I just happened upon by chance! I love improv, and of course for it to really work there has to be absolute trust amongst those you are doing it with. And you’re right, knowing the whistle isn’t there forces you to make it work somehow. The other mantra I like (can’t remember where it came from!) is – Feel the fear and do it anyway.

  4. Having just done a two-day workshop with the amazing David Razowsky, one of my notes was “The only source of suffering is non-acceptance.” When we like or don’t like something, or judge it as “good” or “bad,” those are just labels. Everything just IS. It made me think of how many times I’ve gone into a scene and either judged my partner’s initiation or my own as crappy, which became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Limiting beliefs don’t serve us as improvisers, or as people.

    • improvmantra says:

      Acceptance is one of the hardest skills to learn and master in improv as well as life. It is a cornerstone of Buddhist thought. A great way to start is to meditate. Even 2 minutes a day to begin. There are hundreds of books/podcasts/websites to find out more about meditation. I have found that even a small amount quiets my mind and allows to to look life in the face a little more each day. Thanks for the comment. I love David Razowky – he’s one bad ass improviser!

  5. Jordan says:

    I just read an article in Inc. (May 16, 2012, Six Habits of Truly Memorable People, by Jeff Haden). The following excerpt reminded me of this thread:

    Get over yourself.

    Most of the time your professional life is like a hamster wheel of resume or C.V. padding: You avoid all possibility of failure while maximizing the odds of success in order to ensure your achievement graph climbs up and up and up.

    Inevitably, that approach starts to extend to your personal life too.

    So you run… but you won’t enter a race because you don’t want to finish at the back of the pack. You sing… but you won’t share a mic in a friend’s band because you’re no Adele. You’ll sponsor the employee softball team but you won’t play because you’re not very good.

    Personally and professionally, you feel compelled to maintain your all-knowing, all-achieving, all conquering image.

    And you’re not a person. You’re a resume.

    Stop trying to seem perfect. Accept your faults. Make mistakes. Hang yourself out there. Try and fail.

    Then be gracious when you fail.

    When you do, people will definitely remember you because people who are willing to fail are rare… and because people who display grace and humility, especially in the face of defeat, are incredibly rare.

  6. Love it. Life without a net. Life’s a struggle and then you die. Doesn’t mean you can’t live in the moment and love.

  7. Kate says:

    Wow. Just discovered this great post as I’ve been having many (unwritten) improv posts flying around in my head. The other day the idea of tap out in real life came to me, wouldn’t it be nice if just like when we are in a scene and someone yells ‘freeze’, we could have that option in life.
    I’ve heard of comedy sports but never of the whistle! I think that would have killed my confidence as an improviser- never wanting to get the “you suck/let us save you” whistle!
    I’m struggling with the Buddhist philosophy that states that life is pain. The optimist in me cries no, but even my present reality says yes.
    So, I guess the point is to realize it’s a gift. Life. Struggle. Pain. And if we say yes, and to the struggle, what might we find?!

  8. Pingback: Through… | improvmantra

  9. Pingback: alanis and tap out | Say Yes! Change Things.

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