How to Survive an Improv Marathon: Part Two

One of the loveliest actors turns to me and says ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen. I usually become a bitch when I’m tired.’  I nod back to her, thinking, am I a bitch when I’m tired?  Sometimes. Sometimes I’m cute and funny and uncensored though.  And sometimes I just stop listening and shut down.  What was going to happen to me emotionally on this crazy 26 hour soap opera marathon?

I was sitting in the team talk before starting the improv soap opera, Time Busters, run by Closer Each Day in association with Bristol Improv Theatre (BIT).  How was I going to stay awake, stay in character and still be a functioning improviser let alone human being? With folks I had never played with before?

Time busters!

Well! That actor never did become a bitch.  And not only did I survive but I had an amazing experience thanks to the excellent organisation and generous playing style of the Bristol improv community.

For physical survival tips go to Part one of How to Survive an Improv Marathon. Here are a my discoveries about the Emotional or Mental journey of an improv marathon.

Part Two: Emotional

We’re sitting in that team talk. It’s almost 8pm on Friday. Most of us have already done a 12 hour day and we’re looking at a straight 26 hrs 365 second more before all of this is over.  I have to go back to Cambridge at hour 20 and I’m also nervous about being deadbeat on the train.

Reassurance to remember

Andy Yeoh from Bristol Improv Theatre had two key messages for us to remember in the depths of the night when the improv is getting darker and the audience is sparse.

1) You are not the worst improviser in the room

2) Everybody doesn’t hate you

I’ve been improvising for about 15 years now. I’ve been super anxious and self involved a lot of those years but by now I trust myself on almost any stage. I recognise the anxiety of not knowing my fellow players and I know it will be gone by the end.  When I’m feeling left out, I notice that my character isn’t showing her vulnerability so I open up on stage. I realise when I’m shutting down mentally from tiredness so take myself off for a nap for that episode.

In all this I’m supported by the openness, warmth and talent of my fellow players. Bristol have created a generous and joyful atmosphere in which to play and it truly pays off during the marathon. And when the little seeds of doubt appear in the middle of the darkness, I remember Andy’s words and dismiss my demons with an adroitness my younger self would have paid thousands for.

But the true attack on my mental wellbeing isn’t during the improv marathon. Oh no. It’s afterwards.

Vulnerability Hangover

The French call it the esprit d’escalier. Those witty replies you think of too late. The thoughts you have about what you could have done different or if you’re unkind to yourself should have done.

A good improviser on a good day is vulnerable. They’re in flow, uncensored, allowing their inner thought processes to be the tool of their work,  open to the truth and authenticity of their character and each single moment rather than planning ahead or looking behind. For some of us, this or our failure to be this, leads to a series of insecure afterthoughts and brow beating that I think are equivalent to what Vulnerability and Shame expert Brène Brown calls a Vulnerability Hangover.

These days I’m comfortable with after show or after class thoughts. Occasionally I still mentally scold myself for too long but mostly I just nail down one thing I’d like to do differently next time and then get on with going to sleep or whatever else I’m doing.

But this time I had 20 hours worth of material to process!

It hit me two days after. The day after I’d still been elated but this day the exhaustion caught up with me. Although I wasn’t brow beating myself,  I kept reliving moments, I couldn’t focus on work and all the permutations I hadn’t seen for my final character climax rose to the surface of my brain.  Ah – that would have been a better ending. Oh – that’s what that genius actor was trying to do that I didn’t see at the time. Damn – I could have…

So I treated myself gently. Took the day off work (this was one of my work-for-myself days), read an absorbing book, went for a walk, talked to some awesome people, patiently agreed with all my after-thoughts, and stored some mental notes for next time. Then went to bed early!

So that’s my emotional journey through the improv marathon.  Do your second guess demons rise during the show or after?  How do you manage them?

Next Time: Part Three of How to Survive an Improv Marathon: The Improv!

(Photographer: Jack Drewry)