Energy Saving on the Run Up to an Intensive Improv Experience

Today I am pottering about. I’ve done some easy admin; I’ve sorted through a box; I’ve had a good breakfast. I’m hydrating. I’m half way through my rest time – a space I’ve set aside to stop, to get cosy and to nourish myself.

It’s easy to assume because improv is so fun it is not energy consuming. Often the practise seems to even give us energy. Improv can wake us up, ignite all our senses, get us pumped. But improv is still an activity and those all come with an energy equation.

Don’t ask me what it is. Maths was not something with which I ever felt an affinity. Unless it was algebra, which is kind of cheating on Maths, for those of us that feel safer with the letters of the alphabet.

When I get depleted though, I even lose a grasp on words. They don’t flow easily out of me. They get stuck somewhere. They become ghosts. Floating word ghosts, they whirl around each other, such slippery fellas, on which it’s hard to get a grip. They come out in the wrong order or mashed up. It’s one of my tired tells.

Maybe you already know yours. Maybe you have to think. Maybe you are too busy now imagining me a toddler who’s struggling to keep their eyes open, grisly, sniffling, talking nonsense and still adamant they are not tired. You wouldn’t be far off when it comes to me depleted and still attempting to improvise.

I had rather a weird childhood, so it has taken me a considerable length of time to acknowledge that if I exhaust the energy equation I don’t have anything left to give. I’m a car running on fumes, a dry well, a squirrel in the depths of winter who is too confused now to remember where they’ve buried the nuts.

“Maybe we’d feel better, and achieve more, if we think more about the best times to be truly on and truly off, and free ourselves from the tyranny of floundering in some uncomfortable middle ground.”

Sophie Williamson, ‘Month On Month Off’, Mslexia

Previously, before my last improv intensive ‘retreat’, a person I was staying with told me they’d come into contact with a confirmed Covid-19 case. I panicked. It was the style at the time.

Within the space of a few hours I was panic packed and on my way to a Travel Lodge outside Burgess Hill. After a brief stop over there, I fled further as if the infamous Coronavirus was tailing me and I could shake it off if only I took a few more quick turns on my way to an Air B&B.

I spent several days on my own in Elridge, going for long walks through ancient rock formations, cooking myself stuffed peppers on the fire pit and watching Disenchanted. Happily, in my haste to keep myself healthy for the improv intensive, I’d stumbled on just what I needed: a restorative few days. By the time I arrived to improvise, I was recharged and raring to go. I was. excited for people too, eager to share my adventures. And the thought dawned on me; this is just good practice. Making space for a time of solitude before four frenzied days of full on engaging seems sensible, right?

So this year, in my run up to an intensive improv experience, I’ve carved myself out a chunk of time to just be on my own. I’ve been for a run, I’ve cooked myself some decent food from a favourite recipe. And I’ve caught up on my comfort watching. Someone asked me to do them a favour that would have been stressful and I said, “No.” I’m checking in with what I need to be on good form for an intense experience and to feel I’ve got some inspiration stored up inside me.

“Improvisation draws on a wide range of sources – in fact it draws on anything that might be out and around your brain and bag of experiences… And that’s why you should get an offstage life if you don’t have one. Now that you have improv it’s easy to make it the focus of your life. Cool. That’s a great idea. But remember that every little thing you do can become part of your improv life, whether it’s a precise character choice based on a driving instructor you once had, or an anecdote from visiting an estranged cousin, or adding detail to a film noir scene based on your extensive knowledge of Raymond Chandler novels.”

Ryan Miller, Take It EasyTM

Half-way through my restorative time, and already I’m feeling chipper. I’m excited about this space I’ve carved out for me to wallow in the calm before the storm. An exciting storm but one that still may feature flying chairs, houses or cows. In the past I would have berated myself for being boring and having ‘downtime’. I would have been annoyed I wasn’t out painting the town, helping someone else or being productive.

It’s so easy to forget that part of productivity is downtime. The other day I read an article written by author Sophie Williamson concerning her creative method. She spends a month writing intensively and then a month not writing at all. She talks about how the time she spends not physically writing is just as important to the process of creating. Sometimes she has to be very strict with herself because she wants to write but no, this is her non-writing time.

“Not writing at all in December had been just as powerful as writing nonstop in November. Not only had it physically and mentally rejuvenated me and let me catch up on other things, but it’d allowed ideas for the book to percolate in my head and reinvigorated my passion for the project.”

Sophie Williamson, ‘Month On Month Off’, Mslexia

I can get so excited about creating I just want to do it constantly. But now I can acknowledge the consequences. The fallout is I become listless. I lose enthusiasm. I get resentful and grumpy. I long for other things. And I start to wonder why I’m even doing this pursuit I love in the first place. Sometimes I even fall out of love with it completely.

I don’t want things to get that far. Never again.

So here are my top self-care recharge activities based on what I’m doing at the moment to get myself in good condition for an intensive improv experience. And you may think some of them seem pretty basic. If that’s the case, I salute you for being a self-care wizard. But this list is for those of us who need a little reminder, a nudge, some boxes to tick to give you permission to take care of your most important asset – you!

  1. Carve out some alone time. Approaching, on the horizon, are many words which will flow in and out of you, so can you find some space now where you don’t have to listen and respond? A sensory deprivation tank perhaps. Or just an old fashioned closed door with a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign. Failing that, a blanket over the head, accompanied by growling as a stay away warning.
  2. Give yourself permission to let go. Let others be responsible for themselves for a while (maybe even their whole future lives). Don’t take on stressful favours; don’t try to control anyone; don’t try to fix things that aren’t your things to fix. Have some time taking care of you. Obviously if you do have dependents, like exuberant small people bouncing off the walls, sure I see, you can’t just ignore them. But is there a small window of time you can focus on what feels good for you? This is your permission. One carefully selected act of self-care can go a long way.
  3. Check in with your beautiful body. What does it need from you? Do a body scan. If you’ve never done one of these before, it can feel weird. That’s okay. You’re going to be doing a lot of weird over the intensive improv experience. May as well get a head start.
  4. Do some exercise you enjoy. It may seem counterintuitive but there are times when spending energy can help increase your energy. And that is when you close down stress cycles that might be still playing out inside your body by doing some cardiovascular activity. I like going for a run while listening to Zombies, Run! Some people might not find that relaxing but I turn off the sprinting chase function and get quite absorbed in the story. Yesterday evening, when I was updated that jumping a six foot gap between two buildings was all for nothing because the zombies could also jump now, I laughed out loud in the street and a woman coming around the corner gave me a very weird look. Note to self: not everyone is running away from zombies and enjoying it.
  5. Give your body a good stretch. In her book Own It! Liz Peters refers to the wonders of embodiment and how an effective stretch can have us feeling all kinds of yummy emotions. I’m practicing a little Qigong sequence I learned in an acting movement class recently. It isn’t very long but it has really helped release some tension and improve my posture. Standing tall can also increase our confidence levels. For the science, check out Liz Peter’s super book. During the last retreat I went on, I was completing 100 days of Yoga with Adrienne. It helped me feel so stable. 100 sessions is rather a lot though and I haven’t been doing that so much this year. But even one turn on the mat can have you feeling ready for the world. I’m doing this one today: Yoga for Creativity.
  6. Get grounded. Try some meditation and focus on your breath or if sitting still isn’t your thing, why not try a walking meditation. I did a class on this once and it was pretty cool. You walk deliberately, noticing every muscle in your foot. The main thing I took away was to be really present wherever I am walking. Sometimes I do the five senses grounding technique identifying 5 sights I can see, 4 things I can touch, 3 sounds I can hear, 2 smells I can smell, and 1 taste on my tongue. The exercise helps me to pay attention to what’s around me and to be there instead of inside my own head. I love a walk amongst the trees. Their size and peaceful confidence is just the tonic to have me feeling more relaxed and stable. You will likely be shortly spending a lot of time improvising inside, so it may even feel sage-like to get out and about with nature while you can.
  7. Nourish yourself with some food groups. Doing some cooking where you follow a recipe so you don’t have to make a lot of choices, can be restorative. I find chopping vegetables quite relaxing but I often don’t remember that until I’m doing it. Rustle up some old favourites and feed yourself. If you are staying away in a residential setting for your improv, the food may be quite different where you are going. There may be a lot of bread, for example. Don’t get me wrong, I love bread. But everyone has their bread limits. Get some familiar foods and nutrients in you now while you have the opportunity.
  8. Get cosy. Blankets, candles, thick socks, a Nordic jumper: whatever your cosy jam is, get it going on. My time spent with my Air B&B fire pit, reminded me of the feel good factor of staring into some flames. Obviously in a properly designated safe space… and with some marshmallows.
  9. Get in some snuggly sleeping. Nothing like some shut eye at appropriate times to get your mind and body raring to go. It will help you feel better about the sleeping time you may sacrifice to improv, if you’ve stocked up on your shut eye beforehand.
  10. Get things in order. Pay it forward to your future self and have a little tidy up. Maybe even a declutter. Make some room. You’ll be thankful when you return from the mayhem and your living space is looking ready for you to take up residency again. I just had a tidy of my jewellery box. I discovered so many things I forgot I had. Some I didn’t want anymore. Out with the old, in with the new experiences.
  11. Consume inspiring stuff. Seek out some stories, comedies or dramas. Do some reading (fiction or non-fiction) or watch your favourite film or series. You’re going to be doing a lot of creating so it’s so useful to feel full up with inspiration and ideas.
  12. Avoid improvising (if possible). I’ve got a class the night before I go on retreat this year that I really don’t want to miss, so I’m going to have to cheat a bit but it can really help to have a break so you don’t improv burnout. We do need to say no sometimes.

Burnout isn’t fun. It’s crappy. And having experienced full-on burnout after my father died I would say it is one of the worst things for your creativity. It also takes a ridiculous length of time to recover from. If you think you’ve experienced something similar, the book Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski is very good. It helped me understand how important it is to listen to our bodies. The silver lining with burnout is that you finally learn, even if that has to be the hard way.

Noticing your signs when you’re feeling drained and then doing something to recharge yourself is really important. It’s great for self-trust too. It has taken me a really long time to learn how to notice my tells, to know what to do to look after myself, and to know where to draw the line. And sometimes drawing a line in the sand and doing a dramatic “This shall not pass!” Gandalf style is the only way to ward off the time burglars and keep yourself well.

Everyone has different limits. It is also worth noting that some people can be very forward at asking for what they need, others are very quick to find someone else to take responsibility for them and their business. It does not have to be you that picks up that challenge. Sure, if it isn’t you, it might be someone else but that someone else is also responsibile for themselves and for saying “No.” when they need to.

You’re going to be doing a lot of saying “Yes!” over the next few days. It’s what we do, right? So do yourself a favour and at least a few times in the run up, say “No.” The universe needs balance after all. Say “No.” now so you can say “Yes!” later.

So the observant amongst you may be thinking by now, but Lela, you are writing a blog post during your downtime. Is that really switching off? Well, it’s a fair point. What can I say? I’m a work in progress.

One thought on “Energy Saving on the Run Up to an Intensive Improv Experience

  1. I love this post. It’s spot on and the points are useful before so many big events or weekends away.

    Being around trees has a term called ‘nature bathing’ which I love. Being havk in nature and also just close to water is so calming; it’s like a big hug for your soul.

    Thanks Lela!

    Liked by 1 person

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