You already know the secret to transformative improv.
Sprawled on the floor of your college dorm room, Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief on repeat, waiting for an electric buzz to drop you through the floor into another dimension. You travelled inward to chart unseen inner realms.
Tripping may be the best improv class you can take.
But if you can’t wait for the next Burning Man, here’s some simple tips to turn your next improv scene into a profound, spiritual and/or transformative experience.
Your improv, like your next trip, has the potential to become a psychonautical experience. A psychonaut is an explorer who alters their state of consciousness to better understand the human condition. An astronatu travels beyond their planet to explore space; a psychonaut journeys deep within their Self to find spiritual and/or psychological awareness.psychological awareness.
Inebriation isn’t the end goal. For a psychonaut, psychedelics are the vehicle used to explore traverse inner worlds, spiritual realms, and the human mind.
But there are many psychonauts who experience meaningful trips via non-chemical means: meditation, yoga, sensory deprivation, drama therapy, shamanism, controlled breathing, Reiki, or most commonly, psychiatry. Oh, and improvisation.
Try this: Your character is a powerful pscyhonautical tool that can transform your state consciousness. Focus on changing your perspective or emotional filter, as opposed to just playing a superficial accent or funny voice.
Try this: Change your goals for tonight’s show. Instead of orienting your improv towards laughter or praise from a coach, aim to realize each experience for yourself. Maybe your character Angry Dad isn’t getting any laughs onstage, but did you succeed at exploring frustrated fatherhood? If the answer is Yes, you don’t need an audience or coach to validate your experience.
Try this: Create a list with two columns. In the left column, list all your favourite improv characters you do regularly. Beside each entry, in the right column jot down that character’s antithesis. Find three characters in the right column that are too challenging, scary, or inappropriate to play onstage. Play those character onstage tonight.
Try this: Forget agents and producers in the audience. Release yourself from the fight you just had with your boyfriend. Let go of your petty improv feuds. When the lights come up, start from zero.
Try this: Play with people you love. Don’t have someone like that? Cultivate those relationships.
Try this: Your scene just took an awkward turn? Don’t pull out of the experience in an attempt to fix it. Instead, try sitting in that moment. Experience it fully and completely. A weird moment doesn’t mean you’ve screwed up; it only means your experience is weird. But improv scenes, like life, are full of weird (but valuable) moments. Whoever told you improv should be fun all the time, lied to you.
Try this: Let go of trying to be different in scenes. Revel in sameness. The Group Mind will take you to places you could never get to on your own. (See: Organic group games, mirroring).
Try this: All the things listed above. But remember your own journey shouldn’t come at the expense of your improv partner. Help each other go deeper in your scenes for more satisfying scenes.
Yes, improv is a fantastic writing tool. And improv exercises can be used to facilitate corporate communication workshops. Dr. Know-It-All can be a real hoot at children’s birthday parties.
Beyond that, improv can deliver truths about the human experience, invoke forgotten deities, or transport you to hyper-corporeal realms beyond the stage you stand on. You choose the course of your improv journey every time you step onstage.
My advice? Go limp. Enjoy the ride.
Rob Norman is an award-winning actor, improviser, and merry prankster. He is the author of Improvising Now: A Practical Guide to Modern Improv, as well as co-host of the weekly improv podcast, The Backline with Rob and Adam. For those interested in psychonauts, shamanism, and ethneogenic compounds, check out Breaking Open The Head by Daniel Pinchbeck.
Tracy Letts is an actor, screenwriter, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. If that’s not enough, he also performs from time to time with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. Thanks to David Razowsky for sharing this awesomeness!
A friend and highly respected comedian shared this recently, with the plea, “Dear Comedians, Don’t do this. Dear Marketers, Pay your talent.”
Now, maybe you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s a couple hours of my time in return for a Domino’s Deluxe and some sweet, sweet Pabst Blue Ribbon.”
To advertisers, you’re just naturally funny people, and if you’re going to have funny ideas anyway, send them their way and they’ll actually make them happen.
What they don’t see is that it takes years of training and thousands of dollars to get to the point where your brain is worth picking. Just like they spent years of training and thousands of dollars learning about advertising.
Students pay around $300 in Canada, and $400-$475 in the US for classes. And as every comedy student knows, there’s a lot of classes. Acting, improv, stand-up, sketch, clown…it’s a field where you never stop learning.
It’s not that you can’t do favours. It’s just that you might be forgetting you’ve earned the right to ask for money. You went to school for what you do. You put in the time and money and now you can reap the rewards. Not just have others reap the rewards.
And by rewards I mean that sweet, sweet $35,000 a year the average comedian makes (with many earning far less). No wonder we’re willing to work for food.
In this age of Fivvr and crowdsourcing and Kickstarter potato salad, the line between an investment in your career and being taken advantage of can get blurry.
But stay strong, young Grasshopper. Because the real lesson here, buried in that ad, is Dollar Shave Club.
Two weeks ago, Unilever bought the company for $1 Billion.
The commercial that made DSC famous (23 million views and counting) wasn’t created by an ad agency. It was the brainchild of CEO, Michael Dubin.
Dubin studied and performed comedy for eight years at UCBT. He made the video, which he wrote and stars in, for just $4,500.
Michael Jones was an early investor. In a piece for CNBC, he said he wasn’t totally sold on Dubin’s business pitch. What convinced him was a rough cut of the video. After viewing it, he said, “I knew that Science Inc. needed to come on board…”
Comedy. It’s powerful stuff.
Research shows people rarely make rational purchases; they make emotional ones. Simply put, we buy brands we like. Dubin’s idea for a shaving company was worth something. But his comedic idea was worth billions. The value of Dollar Shave Club was made clear in that creative expression.
Sure, he could’ve given it away for some pizza and free razors. He’s a funny guy with plenty more ideas. But he didn’t. And now he never has to.
Neither do you.
All creatives – comedians, copywriters, art directors, designers, photographers, filmmakers, musicians, and yes, even comedy students – deserve to be compensated fairly.
Because now more than ever, ideas are our greatest currency.
*We initially quoted $30K as the average comedian salary. A Workopolis survey pegs the average wage for arts, entertainment and recreation at $30,186. Stats Canada reports an average of $40,300 for actors, comedians and drama teachers combined. (That figure seems high – to us and people we’ve spoken with – given that many seasoned performers live with roommates and scrape by working as film extras, servers, baristas, or real estate agents to supplement their comedy pay. Also, some stats are for Quebec; francophones book bilingual, as well as French-only acting roles, far more often than bilingual anglophones.) Still, according to StatsCan, one third earn $10,000 annually or less.