Should we just stop saying ‘should’?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the words should and shouldn’t.  There is quite a bit of possible should-ing in my environment at the moment.  I shouldn’t have had to move to Swindon. I should be earning an income by now. The health system should be doing more for my Granny. The UK government shouldn’t be thinking of repealing the Human Rights Act.  All very valid should-ing or shouldn’t-ing (especially that last one, government, WTF).

The trouble with should – however correct we may be – is that it’s denying or blocking what is. It’s also not very loving (which is another thing I’ve been thinking about).

On the improvisation stage we can’t afford to be should-ing or shouldn’t-ing each other or ourselves. We try to accept what is and work with that.  That’s part of the principle of yes, and. We see / listen to our partner’s offer and accept it so we can build on and respond to what’s really there rather than negate it to create the should version in our mind. After all, my should is not the same as your should (although you really should follow my should because I am right.)

Look, I’m not saying that we can’t sit round after and say what could have been done to make a better show or share a glass of wine over what might make a better family/ health system/ country/ planet. I’m just saying that dwelling in should-land is toxic. Frustrating. Powerless. Unloving.

Accepting what is can be really powerful and active.  When you really see what is and allow it to be true regardless of what should be true, you can respond with commitment in the way that works best for you and your improv scene / life.

And I don’t mean rolling over and letting the world or our scene partner dictate to us.  For example, if someone is playing a racist character on stage, I invite you not to block or ignore the racism as if it isn’t there because it shouldn’t be or succumb to thinking that accepting means your character has to like it.  You can respond angrily or happily or manipulative or loving or whatever feels right to you truthfully and comedically in that scene or sketch.

So, in the spirit of accepting what is rather than continuing to sulk about should, I aim to help the awesome Gatecrash Theatre create an improv scene here in Swindon, look for / create a different kind of income while I see to my Granny’s needs, approach the health system myself instead of waiting for it to come to us, and join Liberty UK.  Because WTF government. WTF.

Nerve Endings

Guest blog by london improviser alice sanders

I’m one of the most anxious people you could ever meet, and this is why I am exactly the right person to give you advice on how to get over your nerves when performing improv.

Some background: I started doing improv in January 2013. To get myself to that first class I repeated the mantra ‘One day, Alice, you are going to face death alone. How are you going to do that if you can’t face an improv class?’. I sweated and shook my way through six months of classes – I loved it, but I was terrified. I looked forward to and dreaded each class in equal measure. Before my first show in front of an audience, I vomited. Since then, I have become a member of two improv troupes, performed a bunch of shows, and taken a show to Edinburgh. And I have only vomited from nerves one other time. That’s progress, ladies and gentlemen.

The Edinburgh show came about after going to see the Improvathon with my friend and co-improviser Lynsey. After some red wine and a lot of improv love, an Edinburgh show seemed like the natural next step. And so it began, and at some point in this process I had to acknowledge the fact that I was going to be on stage every day for over three weeks. So, here are my tips on how to feel less hand-tremblingly, knee-weakeningly, hyper-ventilatingly, vom-inducingly terrible…

Finding the Nerve

 Finding the nerve

  1. Face your fear! I know, I know, I’ve started with a massive cliché. But seriously, if you’ve got this far it’s because you want to do it, so get on stage! The fear will not dissipate if you cop out now. It will linger, insidiously blossoming like a secret mould, eating away at your self-esteem and strengthening your sense of resentment. You will NEVER feel ready. So get on stage now!
  1. Do the Wonder Woman pose. Sure, fine, go ahead and laugh cynically, but this has been proven by science. Watch Tedtalk ‘Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are’. Posing in power positions raises your testosterone levels and lowers your cortisol levels. It physiologically changes your brain chemistry, turning you into a more confident person. It’s modern witchcraft! I did the Wonder Woman pose before every single one of my Edinburgh shows.
  1. Do as many shows as you can. In Edinburgh I did a show every day; before the first show I dry-retched in the gutter for two hours, by the fifth show I was too tired to feel nervous. Doing a show was my job, and not a special occasion. The more shows you perform, the less weight each show carries as a reflection of you, a performer.
  1. Die a death! Have a really shit show, go on, treat yourself. And during the show you will feel like you want the ground to swallow you up, and you’re wading through treacle, you will feel like a timelord has slowed things down to a pace where you can see the beating of a humming bird’s wings. I hope, for your sake, that at the end of such a show you don’t have to ask for bucket money, as that feels like asking to borrow a tenner from the housemate whose favourite mug you’ve just smashed. But after all that, you’ll realise that everything is the same as it ever was. It doesn’t matter. Just hop back on and do it again.
  1. Ask for advice and support from the right people. You know how I know about the Wonder Woman pose? I asked a more experienced improviser for advice (thanks, Clare!). How did I get on stage the first day of our Edinburgh show? Because I had the loveliest show partner in the world. Improvising with people you like means that you won’t want to let them down, and also that they will be kind to you if you feel bad. Sometimes it’s good to talk to someone who isn’t a performer because they’ll be impressed by what you’re doing, and tell you that you’re brave. And you are brave. Fear is an opportunity to show how brave you are, as somebody once said.

Nerve Endings

 Nerve endings

  1. Love your art. I had a eureka moment in Edinburgh. I was standing on the side of the stage during a show that was going badly, when a brilliant and experienced improviser playing with us that day turned to me and said:

“Alice, what’s your problem?”
“The audience hate it, they hate it”
“Why do you do this?”
“Because I love it”
“Then why don’t you get out there and have fun. Fuck it.”
“Oh. OH!”

Remember: you are doing this because you love it, because you sure ain’t doing improv for the big bucks. We all know that if you want to make the serious dollar you get into performance poetry! If you are doing it because you love it, you might as well enjoy it. So, finally the big yes, and penny dropped for me. I am doing this because I love it so why don’t I just get on with doing and loving it. It’s really very logical.

  1. Feel your fear. I know this might sound counter-intuitive, but hear me out. I think fighting your fear makes you feel worse. That’s what makes you live in terror for weeks on end, waking up in the night stiff as a board, wondering how you can even sleep like that. I know this might sound like claptrap, but if you let yourself feel it, and know that it will pass, then it is big for a moment, but it subsides. Nerves are there for a reason – they give you clarity, focus, and even mental agility to use on stage. Respect your fear.
  1. Failing all of that, tell yourself you can leave the country afterwards. In moments of extreme panic I’ve told myself all manner of lies including: after that particular show that I will quit improv, never see that group of people again, and emigrate. Anything to get yourself through.
  1. Don’t get stuck all up in your ego. We all do it, I know that I desperately want to be funny and clever on stage. I went through years of an academic system that taught me that being wrong was a humiliation. I lived with a mother who returned letters I’d sent her from a school journey, having corrected them in red pen. None of us want to get it wrong, or to look foolish or boring. You know what though, you probably will at some point. Try to let go of the idea of being right, or best, or funny. Focus instead on listening and facilitating your partner, speaking from the heart, making bold choices, and getting out there and being brave. If you focus on those things, kiddo, you’re gonna be just fine.
  1. Keep truckin’. You will learn your greatest lessons as an improviser on stage, so go forth and do some scene-work upon one. Carry on, I promise you that it gets easier, and it gets better, and one day you will stand on stage and smile and remember the time you barfed like it was a different lifetime.

Wonder Woman

On the Innate Value of Failure

Today’s guest blog is from Cambridge improviser and philosopher, Mark Whitehouse.

CB2 Bistro basement

CB2 Basement  – the empty stage

The CB2 stage is small and, when the lights are on, there is literally nowhere to hide. Even when you’re not in a scene, you’re still lining the walls, waiting for something to happen. And sometimes you see it. That little look that tells you your teammates are struggling. All you can do now is jump. Jump, head first, into the scene and see if you can help. And I really do mean “see”. You can get from the edge of the stage to front and centre and realise you’ve got nothing. You’re a lame duck, waiting for fate or inspiration to guide you.

Sometimes just being there inspires your teammates out of their rut. They think of something new and the scene moves on. In this case, you saved the scene just by being happy to be the one who needed saving.

This is improv’s introduction to failure. It’s that exquisite moment of vulnerability when you give without knowing what it is you’ve got to give. And, in this scene, it has a happy ending. The crowd laughs, your teammates smile and failing to find the words is okay. Better than okay, it’s the perfect fit. Your very failure is part of the creation.

machine cb2
Class show: all in it together

The Question of Failure

It’s this type of heightened moment that leads us to question what we think about failure. Perhaps it’s not a reason for self-flagellation. Perhaps it shouldn’t be avoided – organised out of existence. Maybe there are other ways to see it.

Of course, there are many ways to see failure, and we often apply several at once. They all, however, have a common theme. They see failure as an exception, something that we live our lives in spite of and ultimately try to overcome. These reactions range from straight denial to treating it as an unfortunate blockade. We try to counter it by focusing on the fact we “tried our best” or “showed courage”. It is the virtues shown in the face of failure that have value, not the failure itself.

Likewise, when we do value failure, it is only in relation to future success. We “double down” on our efforts and try to learn from the experience to become bigger successes. Getting dropped from the college football team is only of value, then, if you learn from it and succeed somewhere else; be it in the NFL or back at your studies.

Though this is a noble ambition, it is also flawed. If you only seek to value failure in terms of future success, you will always be striving to get to a world without it. It is the fallacy of the future perfect and it rears its head in our dreams of perfect little happy endings.

Well, I hope to argue for something more: to show failure has innate value – that it lives beyond its relation to success. I hope even to show that our attitudes to failure (guilt, shame or a redoubling of effort) are a false morality. One that means we look for value in ever greater control.

The definition of Failure

But, to talk in detail about this, I need to hone in further. Between the twin pillars of the trivial and the life threatening, there lies an ocean of failures in our daily lives. These are what I call Social Failures, and it’s here that I’ll focus.
Social failures are found in any action we learn to see as a failure, learn to feel shame about or try to avoid. A classic example would be saying something stupid in public, though there are many in everyday life. Sometimes small, sometimes life altering, these are all issues of control.

The desire for control

When we dream big we tend to inadvertently dream of control. Winning the lottery gives us financial control. The wish to be charismatic or beautiful or funny plays on our need to control how others see us. Even the wish to live somewhere sunny is a proxy form of control. Though we can’t directly influence the weather we hope it could always be what we want.

Control, though, is a desire that’s very hard to satisfy. We already live in a time where we control almost every need at a basic level, yet yearn for more. We are no longer anyone’s prey. There is no hunger or thirst. We have light, information and entertainment at our touch. Yet we still wish to become millionaires, or bed models, or create some great legacy. This is not control at a normal level; it is control freakery and seems to come as a displacement of other needs.

 James mutes heather cb2

An improv scene set in hell

Control and Loss

So why do we value control so much? Well, control, in its more realistic form, is a good way of ensuring our needs are met. Everyone strives for some element of control in their lives – even if it is just to know where the next meal is coming from.

But, in normal life, control is always balanced with vulnerability. Where we become obsessive about control is where we feel least able to handle vulnerability.

In its most extreme cases, we see this in our response to loss. Whether it is a parent or loved one, our reaction to the pain can become a wish to insulate ourselves from ever being placed there again. This is when we tie ourselves in the tightest knots. It’s when we build barriers between ourselves and the world, or try to puppet master the people we care about.

The key to control, then, is that it is self-interested. It is based on the primacy we feel for our own thoughts and emotions. If we are to truly control our world then we must give up our need for others.The search for invulnerability leaves us alone, at the centre of our own little universe.

Failure, vulnerability and connection

If we are not to be alone, then, we must find room for vulnerability. In vulnerability, we find the affirmation of our need of others. We find the very glue of our connection. From that connection, we can flourish greatly. All our greatest social bonds, be it friendship, love or trust, come from our need for each other.

Failure has value, then, outside of its link to success. It is the soil from which many valuable things grow. To seek to push it from our lives or see it as an aberration is delusional. We would lose far more than we thought.

But, even as I talk about failure’s value in its purest platonic sense, I know that we will still struggle with it. After all, just because failure generally has value doesn’t mean we shouldn’t avoid it in a specific instance. I can happily accept failure in my life and yet still wish to live with just the bare minimum needed. After all, why drown in it?

These are all questions of the motivation to avoid failure.

Risking Failure

Let me be clear, the wish to avoid failure is not something that we would hope to eradicate from our decision making. I am not trying to create “fearless” people. After all, we are often rewarded with safety if we take the more secure route. Yet, failure is still given too much weight in our decision making. We do not attempt risky things that could be of great value to us just because there is a chance of failure. We consistently overstate a risk because it is happening to us. It is our world and our hurt if it goes wrong.

We are again judging the world solely through our own eyes. Were this happening to someone else, we would be unencumbered by our overprotective nature. We could better weigh the value with the risk and come up with a choice. It’s all about our expectations and the stories we tell ourselves and, in this respect, improv can help us immensely.

Improvised Storytelling

Improvising a story together

Improv vs. pre-planned stories

What separates improv from normal storytelling is that it doesn’t follow a simple narrative. This is not to say that it doesn’t still tell stories, it just doesn’t do it in the same way as a book or play would. In a normal story, details are introduced early so that they can have influence later in the tale. It sets up character arc and plot and means all extraneous detail can be removed.

This works well for storytelling as it allows us to remove the clutter and talk specifically about one detail or theme. It is also deceptive, though, as it doesn’t reflect the true flow and complexity of life. Improv reflects life far better, in this respect, because no event has significance until it is followed by another. At any point, the flow of a scene could change and the elements that appeared significant at the beginning become irrelevant. At each new offer, we change completely any preconceived ideas we had of how the story should have gone.

So how does this affect us? Well, we tell stories all the time to help understand the world. In fact, both success and failure are products of the stories that we tell ourselves.

To plan anything is to have thought of a story of how something could go. When we then actually have to act on these plans, success and failure are just how the events compare to what we expected. If I board a plane with the strong belief it will crash into the sea, then a rough ride with a safe landing is a huge success for me. Yet, if I had thought the flight would be perfectly smooth, the same flight could be a dogged failure because of a little turbulence.

Make no mistake, these stories are an important element of our experience as people. They help us tell ourselves who we are and frame the world in ways we can understand. We find our very identity there. They are, however, completely dependent on how we choose to see the world.

Adaptability and judgement

In improv, we are asked to suspend our storytelling. In fact, it is present in one of the fundamental tenants of the form – do not judge your offers. If you are to be truly present and build on a scene, there is no room for judgement of what you’re given. You don’t have the time to fight between what’s offered and what you expected. Your story just adapts.

Even where we do judge elements of a scene (through terms such as “blocking”), they are used to deal with our own actions, not the offers of others. You may think your partner is blocking you but the scene doesn’t just stop. Even in their discomfort, they are still giving you something. And the reaction is the same: “Yes, and…”

Improv teaches us to hold our stories lightly. We adjust quickly to the changing of events precisely because we are not stuck in our own heads. Just by knowing that we must be present, we go past our own preconceptions and see the moment as alive and vivid as any other.

It is a skill that is learnt and allows us to approach our lives from a different perspective. It does not ask you to be completely present all the time, nor does it wish to eradicate failure. It just shows you that what you are receiving is the same gift, whether you perceive it that way or not.

It is important to our identity, and the story of who we are, that we do interpret our world. Seeing something as a success or failure can, and does, have real value. But, if we are unaware that we are making a choice how to interpret our world, or feel bound by what we’ve learnt to see it as, we are walking blind through our actions.


Hopefully, then, I have been able to show the origin and value of failure. It’s origin, like success, comes from the way we see our lives. It comes from the comparison of what is really happening to what we had expected. This, like anything, is a choice. It is important that we form these beliefs but it is also important that we know that it is a choice. If we accept the unpredictability of our lives and choose to be adaptive, we need not hide from failure, nor deny its worth.

Because failure does have worth. What makes it unbearable to so many – the vulnerability, the need denied – also proves its value. We are so connected precisely because we need each other, and can fail so poorly on our own.

With this under our belt, we can re-assess our choices. We can feel vulnerable and hurt and know that it is okay. We are not diminished by feeling this. Likewise, we know that we can follow the path of the things that have real value, even if we might not succeed. With enough presence, we can build without needing to know what we’re building, or whether it’s going to be good or right. Let us build and fail on the right intention, rather than succeed in the deluded search for control.

It may not be the answer we were hoping for, but it does give us the vision to see what we had previously ignored: the true value of failure.



Team mates ready to improvise 

If these ideas have been of interest to you, and you’d like to go a little deeper, I can recommend these links below. They provided much of the ideas that I have patchworked here, as well as much more.

A short video on control and loss in Wes Anderson’s movies

Brené Brown on vulnerability

And her follow up on shame

David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech about the choice of how we see the World.

Don’t worry – we’re ALL control freaks.

Anyone ever tell you you’re a control freak? Did you bristle at the accusation or just shrug? Well, I have a theory:

We’re ALL control freaks.

Or rather, we all like to have the sense that we’re in control but we have different kinds of ‘freaks’ or behaviours that crop up when we perceive a lack of the control we care about.

For example, I usually see a range of completely normal but different behaviours manifested by my students around their first end of class show. It gets easier as we do more shows of course. When we know what it feels like to let go of the outcome.  When we trust the improv method more. When we trust our teammates more. When we trust ourselves more!

I used to be a micro manger (confession time!) and have been learning over the last 8 years to let go of the idea that I control anything. So imagine the ‘freaks’ the old me would be having over the new me gleefully inviting people to an improv meet-up with no pre-set agenda, where I can’t go to every conversation and afterwards events will be organised which I’m not on the committee for!

And the new me is chuffed with the open space improv meet-up we had on the 9th November!  What an awesome improv community is Cambridge!  And thanks to Johnnie Moore for running it.  I love that people are organising a festival, that there were debates about community and professionalism and marketing and venues, that the gown invited the town to play with them, that a show was created, that everyone ate breads and olives and OWNED this community.

For those of you who didn’t make it and are having FOMO (fear of missing out), worry not, you’re going to reap the benefits of this meet up and be invited when we have more!  For starters, the university Impronauts are hosting a festival next week.  Howz that for improvised?


PS Got a friend who wants to do improv but hasn’t got free weekdays?  Tell them about the Improv in a Weekend Beginners class at the end of November!