My first improv retreat went by in a blur of exhaustion, adrenaline and weird noises. It never really occurred to me not to go again. Sadly the last few have been cancelled but there was also a pandemic to think about. Now here in the UK, things have been slowly opening up. As we rattle through September, an optimistic bunch of us are holding our breath as we get ever closer to attending The Maydays autumn residential intensive. It’s a nail-biting time.
It has me getting all nostalgic for what has passed. But I can assure you that my first improv retreat was no picnic. There was also not a picnic… which seems weird with lots of beautiful grounds to explore. However, for my first retreat I didn’t really see any of the grounds. I was too busy inside running about and being all ‘improv’.
I’d like to report it was a constant wonderland of improvised performance. The truth of the matter is, it was, but it also had its tough times. My first retreat started by being told by a fellow improviser how I had embarrassed myself in a session. I don’t think it was meant to sound unkind but I can be a sensitive soul so it sent me into a shame spiral that lasted the rest of the retreat and resulted in me being less and less able to say anything in scenes. During the showcase performance I made some battle cries and that was all I could manage to get out through my mouth hole.
We were fighting invisible orcs. Fitting huh?
As I drove away after the retreat had ended, a whole bunch of new voices poured out of me, from some deep dark place, until around about Salisbury. From there I started singing to an Avril Lavigne song on the radio, got ridiculously angry, and then cried my eyes out all the way to Pizza Hut.
I still laugh thinking about it because the weird thing was, I think that retreat may have been the making of me. And also the breaking of me. But also the making of me. I still managed to make friends, find fun and learn loads, including what weird substance I was made of: me. It was a baptism of fire and for some irritating reason they’re the best for growing at an exponential rate.
I came back asking my teachers if I should ever improvise again… could I really handle this? And they all said the same thing: Hell, yeah!
And thankfully, I listened to them.
So here’s a collection of my top tips for getting the most out of an improv retreat, from someone who has been there and got a t-shirt… which was for free because it was faulty and fell apart… so then I framed it and hung it on my wall like a diploma… because I’d earned it.
- Resist comparing yourself to the skill/talent/superpowers of others. You are going to be surrounded by people doing great in their own particular ways. Some will be fantastic at initiating, some will blow you away with their word play, some will have object work to kill yourself with an imaginary gun for. Try not to let that get to you. Swim in your own lane. You often won’t know what others love about your improvised performance so be secure that you are just where you need to be right now. Here!
- Listen to feedback from teachers and instructors. Try not to defend your intentions. Make a note of the feedback for later. Give it a go, putting it into practice if you feel ready for the note, but don’t expect to correct yourself in the few days you are at the retreat. Lap it up as a useful observation and know you can come back to it later to explore in your regular practice.
- Compliment, don’t criticise. You’ll see loads of great improv but sometimes you’ll also get ideas about how others could ‘do things differently’. That’s fine but keep those bits to yourself, unless you are specifically asked. I have received the most unsolicited criticisms from people at retreats and sometimes they have come right after receiving great feedback from a teacher. Whoever the improviser is, they get to make their own decisions so dig their groove, don’t burst their balloon. If you do find yourself on the receiving end, know you are only hearing one person’s opinion on how they would do things and that is just one drop in a sea of possibilities.
- Keep doing something. If you freeze up like I did, then try not to panic. See it as an opportunity to focus on interesting object work or body language. Or make weird noises. These can be just as strong offers in scenes. When I was at my most frozen I said to the great Jules Munns, “I just don’t feel like I’m giving my scene partner anything.” He replied, “I bet you’re giving them much more than you think you are.” Because even silence can be inspiring if leaned into. I once saw a normally very chatty improviser do a whole scene in silence at an improv retreat jam and it was incredibly powerful.
- Avoid burning out. It’s hard to hold yourself back when there is so much to throw yourself into, but try to build some time into your day for just you. It took me until my third retreat to discover I could take myself off for a little walk, sit on my own in a field or just quietly focus on my breath for a bit. It was a really important grounding tool to right me again after all the joyful make believe. Wherever you find, and it maybe the toilet (also speaking from experience), find a moment for yourself and seize it. I know some people give themselves a session off even. Do what you need to do to recharge your batteries so you have the energy for the experiences that matter most to you.
- Keep out of your own head (as much as possible). It is so hard not to get stuck in your noggin when your brain is being bombarded with new information: here’s a new format, here’s a new way to initiate, here’s a new way to play a pair of furry car dice. If you get in your head, try to remember why you came to the retreat and give yourself permission to be bad. The best place for your worst improv is in class, so do what you can but don’t sweat it if you are not everything you want to be. This is the place to try new things and fail gloriously.
- Accept you will probably get overwhelmed at some point. It’s a part of the journey. You might cry at a cardboard robot. You might get all in your head. You might freeze up and be only able to make noises for an entire scene. You will not be alone. I have done all these things. Ride it out and keep on trucking. You might learn a lot about yourself from the way you get through these moments.
- Make a record by taking notes or your equivalent. Improv requires a certain degree of ‘being in the zone’ which tends to come with a tendency to let it all go afterwards. When your learning is interspersed with improv exercises though this can mean you forget some useful lessons pretty quick. I can feel a bit awkward taking notes but now I get my notebook out early – preferably before the session begins so I can be poised and ready. I’ve even started writing down at the end of class all the exercises we did. It’s really helpful later when the session is a distant memory because it’s the afternoon and you’ve moved onto singing improvised folk songs and playing an upbeat roof tile.
- Offer support to your fellow players when you can. Some of my most cherished moments at retreats have been when I can support others. So many people have been kind enough to support me when I’m wobbling so it’s meaningful to pay it forward. We all crack up at different times. Different things scare us. Some people get incredibly nervous just before performing, other people get their buttons pushed in an immersive class, and other people still, cry over cardboard robots. There’ll be times you’re riding high on the improv fumes, while others are struggling. As long as your well isn’t dry, take the opportunities to lift your fellow players. You may even find yourself with a new improv buddy.
- Follow your fun. At one retreat I tried to go to all the advanced classes because I wanted to be in those rooms. Now I choose a balance of sessions for learning and for lighting me up. Lean into it and live your best improv retreat life by following your own unique fun-times. You don’t need to prove yourself. You have as much right to be here, doing improv, as anyone else, so be enough for your glorious self. You really don’t have to be good. You just have to be here.
I think that robot might need an explanation. At the last retreat before the pandemic, I went to a session in improvised puppetry with the marvellous creative energy that is Jennifer Jordan. In it we had the opportunity to make a creature out of scrap materials. I got a big piece of cardboard and coupled it with some egg boxes to make a robot-like creature. I called it Brian. Now in your head you are probably imagining something more sophisticated. Dial that down a few notches.
There was a high quantity of surprising behaviour in that workshop which Brian wasn’t too sure about – probably also not helped by the graphically obscene cardboard sex. Yep, can’t unsee that. Even if your eyelids are made of an egg box.
After cardboard creature dancing and scenes, there was a chance to reflect. I started talking about my box robot and how it felt disconnected. All of a sudden I was crying. It was such a surprise and I tried to hide behind the cardboard. ACTUAL ME tried to hide behind the cardboard robot. The musical magician Joe Samuel then said, “Don’t you see, Lela. That puppet is you when you started improv.” And of course the wise sage was right. He’s always right.
I did feel disconnected when I started improv and I wasn’t sure then I had a right to be in the room. And on top of that I now felt rather foolish after having cried over cardboard but to my great surprise people seemed to connect with me all the more for it. It made me wonder if I should carry that robot around with me all the time! But it was too late by then; he’d been recycled.
I’ve been recycled too. I’m a different version of the rather disconnected person I was when I went to my first retreat. I don’t need that cardboard robot to hide behind (sorry Brian).
No doubt, you’ll be going to your next retreat in a different place to me but if it comes to it, I say: don’t be afraid to break. Let it go. Grow. This is your party and you can cry over a cardboard robot if you want to… and even if you don’t.
Enjoy your own retreat journey. I hope you embrace every weird minute of it and hold on tight. It’s going to be one heck of a ride.