I look around Beaconsfield Services – a sprawling hexagon like building crammed with fast food outlets and bright moving screens. Outside it’s pissing it down with rain. The pitch-black void of the world is butting up against the tear-smeared windows. This is purgatory, the no-man’s-land between the improv mothership and that dirty rascal reality. On the way to the toilets, whole walls are covered with masses of different patterned mobile phone covers. People are ordering Macdonald’s on huge vertical boxes a metre away from the counter. At the coffee place, customers are in stasis all staring down at their hand-held devices. Why is nobody improvising?
I stand trying to signal to Josh across the forecourt. He’s up on an inside balcony bit and I’m trying to get him to turn around and see that Ric is behind him. Maybe he already knows. So I change tactics and do a series of communications like long-distance charades that I hope explain Kathy’s location and why I’m here. Nope, don’t think he’s getting that either. The connection has weakened. There’s too much ‘real world’ in between us. We’re improvisers thrown to the winds. Is he beckoning me? He looks like he’s making an origami swan in mid-air. It could be a dance.
Between us are masses of people scurrying about like ants, getting themselves sustenance, wandering back and forth to the loos, loitering. Who are they all? Where are they going? Why do they look so unfamiliar? What makes them tick? Have they even heard of improv?
Josh still doesn’t get my hand signals or maybe he does and I don’t get his. Suddenly we are all disconnected. Suddenly nothing makes much sense. We are a paddle of ducks out of our pond. There’s no exercise to do in creating tension, or a game of the scene or song; there’s no sea shanty to sing or spontaneous dinner party to crash or supernatural Shakespearean witch to endow. I want to go all improvised David Mamet on this place and deep dive into a sweary rant:
The motherfucking motorway services with shitty tiled floors and filthy fucking tables. You can see the reeking sweat coating the walls. Who are these fuckers ignoring my hilarious charades? Why aren’t they supporting me? Bunch of goddamn real worlders, that’s who. “Normality”. Fucking “normality”. Who the fucking bloody hell wants fucking over-rated bullshit “normality” when you can make-believe to your heart’s content with deliciously creative people all day long? Give me badass creative improvisers every motherfucking day of the working week… thank you very much.
The Starbucks guy has written Lelo on my cup even though I am still wearing a name badge. One with a gleeful smiley face sticker.
I could use a hug.
It dawns on me why all these people might be looking down at their phones now and not at the grown-ass woman with a smiley face name tag stuck to the front of her cleavage.
Yesterday I got to play a singing triangle. Who the bloody hell would choose “normal”?
It’s at times like this the rest of the world can feel alien. I can get caught up in stark contrasting ways of thinking. If you weren’t at the retreat, you couldn’t possibly get me, real worlder. I can feel a bit ashamed and misunderstood without actually having told anyone why I’m wearing a name badge. If they knew, they might even think improvising is kind of cool. And it is!
The truth is, improv is my normal and to me it is home. I don’t much like having to walk away from it ever. Having to, sometimes makes me grumpy. Because to me, improv is no less weird than anything else humans do. Humans are the strangest creatures in the animal kingdom. Do you ever just look around and think: this is bonkers! What is all this stuff? Service stations. Roads. Self-serve Macdonald’s. Hand-held information overload. Corporate overlords. Chairs.
Even chairs are pretty weird when you stare at them long enough.
When I immerse myself in other worlds for a while, the return often has me thinking along these lines. It’s like being quite contented living out of a suitcase and then being baffled by the sheer number of clothes suddenly at your disposal when you get back. It can feel overwhelming. I can’t wear all these clothes at once. I must remember: nor should I. I need to ease myself back in and also bear in mind the ones I took with me were my favourites.
During these times of readjustment from the improv mothership to the ‘real’ world, it helps me to feel less alien by reminding myself that improv is no weirder than anything else. It is just another thing that humans do and have been doing for a really long time. And I’m not talking about recent decades. I’m talking of improv as ancient.
“Around the globe, improvisation is performed by hundreds of theatre companies and groups, each with their own theatrical traditions and cultural identity. Improvisation is ancient! It’s linked to the Atellan Farce (300 BCE), to the Basque improvising ladies of the fifteenth century, French farce, or Commedia d’ell Arte (sixteenth century onwards). It connects to storytelling traditions in Ireland, Asia, Latin, America, the Middle East, Nordic countries and Africa, to name a few. Improvisation is present in the work of clowns, troubadours, jesters, bards, street performers, puppeteers, dancers, musicians and more. “Patti Stiles, Improvise Freely
Going to an improv retreat is really no more bizarre than going on an all-inclusive booze cruise and not getting off the boat. We’re all humans picking out our favourites.
Still, sometimes I have wanted to ask: was it ok for me to be weird?
Was I actually being weird? Are we being weird? Maybe. But whose idea of weird? The sensible Victorian authoritarian voice of reason? Spontaneous drama as something weird, art as something weird, creativity as something weird – who makes those rules?
When I was at college a guy looked at my best friend and said she was “good weird”. He looked at me and said, “you’re weird weird”.
My friend and I would laugh about that for years to come. Just what was this guy’s idea of ‘good’ weird and why did he get to decide? Well-behaved weird? Moral weird? Just the right amount of weird with which he was comfortable? That latter seems the most likely.
I know now that what my friend and I were, was creative. We had a connection which we’d worked on since we were 12 and we felt safe enough with each other to create freely and we would too; we would make up whole worlds together, building on thing after thing. We spent as much time as possible cooking up wild ideas about people and places and inanimate objects. We didn’t know what we were doing then… I reckon you know.
Finding people you can be your unlimited creative self with is a gift. Finding a place and a time to do that is a gift too. A gift we give ourselves when we improvise intensively, intensely and/or on retreat.
I look around and know that Beaconsfield Services is not going to provide the space, even though some of my favourite improv people in the world are here with me.
I am grateful we have had a place – a glorious time carved out for The Maydays 13th Annual Improv Retreat. We have seized the opportunity to create, to chatter enthusiastically about creation and to make as many wonderful creative worlds as time would allow. We have laughed. We have been awed. And we have witnessed emotional bravery over and over again. We’ve watched risks being taken. We’ve seen beautifully rich spontaneous scenes brought to life before our eyes. We have grown.
The last night of the improv intensive I cried because I was so happy. To me, that’s a real thing. I’d experienced so much joy and laughter and love – creativity had coursed through me; I’d felt appreciated, seen, heard and alive. That’s a real thing. Over those 48 hours I’d fallen in love as a yeti with an elf, I’d played a rhyming owl and I’d sung as a sexy cat. I was overflowing with gleeful creative wonder. That’s a real thing.
By the time I get up to the Beaconsfield balcony, the others have reassembled and everyone is looking drained. Maybe they are feeling what I am feeling.
Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not at the improv retreat anymore.
Maybe we’re all just really tired. But this debrief is important. It’s part of landing after improv: the chat in the pub, some circle time, a chance to check out and make sure we’re all exiting this intense time of creativity a-ok.
Improv isn’t a light activity. It’s not a surface sport. It’s not a peaceful solitary hobby you can pick up and put down while you’re watching Netflix. It involves crashing worlds together. It involves digging deep. It involves showing up with authenticity and connecting through often messy loud negotiation. It involves guts.
So what can we do to land after lots of improvs, after an intense or intensive improv experience, after a retreat? Here are some things to try.
- Connect with your fellow intense/intensive improvisers – chat to the people who were part of your experience. They will get it; at least in part. They may not have been in that sexy cat class but they get what it feels like to have lived it and now to be landing like you are. If there’s a forum, join it. Reach out. Exchange messages, contact details, social media profiles. Set up those group chats. Share your thoughts and feelings. Keep the conversation going if you can.
- Accept that no one else will comprehend your glorious journey – they just weren’t there. It’s not that they don’t love and support you. It’s just they don’t fully understand and trying to explain to them how you nailed a chorus while playing a morose mushroom is just not going to mean anything to them. That’s ok. You get it. That is what matters most. And the good folk in your life will be happy you found happy… even as a morose mushroom.
- Listen to your body – What does your body need? Fluids. Food. Exercise. More bread? Honour it. You’ve spent some time in your head so let your body know you love it too. This also means sleeping. Slumber will help balance out all that glorious improv energy, the late nights, the early mornings, digesting the massive quantity of bread (this retreat really involved a lot of bread). Get the shut eye that your body is craving. The ‘real world’ (whatever that is) is easier to take on without sleep deprivation.
- Give yourself time – I remember one retreat from which I returned feeling emotional. I was so tired but I pushed myself to go out for an impromptu dinner with someone who hadn’t retreated with me. I got upset about the arrangements. And then over dinner itself, my head and heart were still in intensive improv-land and if I wasn’t talking constantly about my experience, I was resenting not talking constantly about my experience. Recognise when it is time to spend some time alone, resting up and smiling to yourself over the fun times.
- Check your notes – did you get it all down? Read over your notes and make sure it’s all there. Add in the fun things you played during that session or the things you saw others do. Did anyone make any moves you’d like to emulate? This will be such an inspiring reminder to look at later. I’ve nearly forgotten already what I played. A written record helps jog your memory so you can get all nostalgic through the year/s ahead.
- Keep on top of your schedule – with no one telling you when to eat, sleep, drink and improv, it’s easy to let these things slip. Monday I didn’t have dinner until 10.30pm. Today I had two lunches. I need to remind myself to focus on my timings. So acknowledge it is now likely up to you to take charge of what to do when. And if you sit at the dinner table waiting to be served you might be waiting much much longer.
- Do something down to earth – there’s all that laundry to get through for starters. I know, boring! But do some things that make you feel like your feet are on the ground. Even intense/intensive improv stars need clean clothes and clean cutlery. Today I did the laundry AND the washing up. Good day. One day, sometime in the future, I might fully unpack.
- Let go of regrets – Wondering if the improv you did was everything it could have been? It was. You gave it your best shot. You were learning so some things might not have worked. No worries. You were there and you were doing it. Nothing else matters now. I can get all caught up in thinking of all the things I should have done or said. For me it’s thinking where could I have been bolder, braver, more ‘all in’. But the truth is I was enough. I am enough. I gave it all I had to give at every given moment. Give yourself a break and a pat on the back. If you want to make a note of any ideas that do spring up, pop them in your notebook under ‘try this later’. Then do something else completely different to get out of your head. I find yoga helps me or a walk in the woods.
- Give your inner child some love – mine is tugging at my hem saying “Why can’t we stay at the improv retreat all year around?” I hear you, precious. It sucks! Make sure your inner child knows there’s more creative fun to be found and you’re not drawing a line here. Dance a jig, colour something in, sing a song, splash in a puddle, stare at a bug. Speak kindly to the child buzzing about within.
- Create your next improv opportunity – you might want to book a class, get some improv pals together or plan to take some exercises you’ve learned to your next rehearsal. You might sign up to the mailing list to be first to hear when the annual intensive rolls around again. Whatever feels good, remind yourself this is not the end of the ride. There is much much improv still to be done.
This landing calls to mind the improv shiver. After we play an intense scenario, an emotional deep dive, a character with strong motives, and “scene” is called, we have the impulse to shake it off.
Look everyone, it wasn’t me; I’m shaking if it off now.
Or, in a class about using the breath to inspire improv, I learned a new one from Jennifer Jordan. You look into the eyes of your scene partner/s and you clap your hands together once so it stings. The improv wake-up.
You can shake it off, you can clap it out, but for me, I don’t think it’s ever going to be easy to leave the improv mothership.
At times like this, the ‘real world’ doesn’t feel like my real world.
But we can’t go backwards. There’s more fun to come so keep on improv trucking. I’ve spent a lot of my life living in a different time zone – the past or the future. But life isn’t there. It’s now. Right now. Now you get the gift of finding what to love about this moment.
Now is also the chance to keep the creative energy flowing. Don’t stop. Take all this beautiful intense intensive improv learning and let it bleed into your ‘real world’ improv. Whether you improvise once a week, once a month or once a year, take all that creative curiosity and apply it to your motherfucking badass wonderful real life.
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it.”Maya Angelou
So stay ‘real’: inside keep rolling around like a sexy cat, doing jazz hands like a triangle, and falling in love with your ‘real’ like a yeti with an elf. What else are you going to do with this one precious life?
Visit one of the three Starbucks at Oxford Services? Maybe. Or maybe…
… a lot more badass motherfucking improv.
We would like to apologise for all the motherfucking swearing in this blog post. Please blame David Mamet, and also Chris Mead, for teaching Improvised Mamet.