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)

How to Survive an Improv Marathon: Part One

There it was! My invite to be core cast for the 26 hr improv soap opera, Time Busters, run by Closer Each Day in association with Bristol Improv Theatre (BIT)

Time Busters - Promo Image

It started at 8pm on Friday evening so I’d already be up for 12 hours before we even started. How was I going to stay awake, stay in character and still be a functioning improviser? With folks I had never played with before?

Well! Not only did I survive but I had an amazing experience which I largely attribute to the excellent organisation and generous playing style of the Bristol improv community.

Here are a few tips I learned from the super team in Bristol and by just doing it.

Part One: Physical

I felt more awake and ready to improvise through the whole thing than I expected to. Was that luck or did some if these tips help?


The marathon was divided into sections of two hours with the soap episode being 1 hr 45 and the break / audience turn around being 15 mins. In that 15 mins you have to do everything you need to do: queue for the loo, drink, eat, hug, rest your eyes…

Bristol folk provided coffee, tea and LOTS of water. I brought water, a small bottle of emergency cola and a fruit smoothie.  I thought I’d be into the coffee all the time but it turns out that what you need and crave is the water. Lots of it. I had a few sips of cola between each episode and my normal intake of coffee (two a day).


I learned that the salads and tuna meals I’d brought with me, lightweight as they were, were just too bulky and unappealing. BIT provided fruit (mandarins, apples), breads and cookies. For me the fruit was perfect and I had some whole food bars as well. I ate much less than I expected to. What I did eat was light, quick (between episodes) and high in energy.


I get tension and tiredness headaches any way so I took a cheeky painkiller about 10 hours in. I have no idea if it helped!


Stage adrenaline keeps me going. And it can also make me shaky if I’ve just done a big emotional episode cliffhanger on no sleep. I took those 15 min breaks as a chance to breathe, go outside for air and give my body signals of relaxation. The come down from adrenaline is exhaustion so I felt significantly tireder sitting on the train coming home than I did during the show.

Staying upright

The organisers were clear about health and safety; who the first aiders were, no real shovels or sharp implements in stage. Still, we had a two tier stage, a dodgy step stage left, lots of props and fabric, and very tired improvisers zipping in and out of crowd scenes. Let’s not pretend I’m my normal alert self able to avoid all tripping hazards in a single bound.

One of my strategies was to stop and look briefly before I move; to allow myself not to rush so I could really see what and who was in front of me.

There is the opposite matter of keeping show energy up with slick transitions so (when I remembered) I began to move gently as soon as my character name was called (before the facilitator had finished calling the full set up). Later in the show those who came in fresh kept the show energy moving thank goodness!


Every improviser was scheduled to have some episodes off entirely. Some folks didn’t take them. Some slept for an hour or so on one of the benches in the bar. Some folks knew they needed real sleep to survive mentally so went home for a while.

I didn’t take my first break at four hours but by 14 hours in I was confused about my storyline and sluggish with my offers. I had no home to go to but I swear by a good nap! I discovered while working split shifts in my twenties that my body takes an exact 20 min nap, no matter the noise, no clock needed. And that’s exactly what I did!


Taking my toothbrush was the most awesome thing. This cannot be underrated. Cleaning my teeth was like cleaning my mind as well so really helped with the adrenaline release. And that minty zing had me feeling awake and ready for the next episode.

Also – you’ll have noticed that I’ve only used 20 mins of my 2hr episode break right? I also took the time to wash my face, change underwear, socks, shirt, reapply make up, deodorant, have coffee, clean teeth – giving myself signals of a morning wake up routine. Then I watched the last 15 mins of the episode so I had a sense for what was going on. I felt soooo ready to get back in that stage!!!

So that’s the physical side of surviving an improv marathon.  Did I just get lucky? How do you manage? Have your say in the comments below.

Next: Part Two of How to survive an improv marathon: Emotional and Part Three: the Improv

Ten random improv notes that apply to life

There are some pretty good blogs out there that highlight improv principles that are good for life.  Like this one.

Which gets me to thinking – what about the everyday feedback we give as coaches and teachers?  There’s gold in there too right?  While cleaning out my papers recently, I found a bunch of scribbled instructions that I wrote in the middle of the classes where I was on vocal rest so I put this theory to the test.

Here are ten random improv instructions that could apply to life:

Face the audience

This one is pretty useful for communicating with anyone you’re speaking to or trying to further a relationship with.  Take it another level and make eye contact 🙂

Love your own ideas

Your obvious is your genius and whether it’s the same as other people’s doesn’t matter. If it is then you’ve got group mind. If not, then you’ve probably got the one point of view that saves your team project.  Either way, love the ideas that arrive in your mind naturally. You don’t have to go hunting for better, cleverer, more original ones.

In the future, remove mime shoe

If you’re going to commit violence with or to an object then save on legal bills and use mime. It can be just as satisfying and allows you to really go for it.

Where are you? Who are you?

In improv we don’t have years to answer the big questions. We make an immediate commitment to who and where we are right now.  You can be someone else and somewhere else in the next scene so it’s no big deal. And when you do discover a favourite persona that enables you to most honestly express your inner self you can turn it into your Edinburgh show.  Or just be more true to yourself in life 🙂

You don’t have to say all the things (unless that’s the game)

Unless it’s your role in a particular setting to say all the things, let other people say some things!

Try playing happy!

Research says that if we laugh and smile (with the eyes like a real smile) we send our body real chemical signals of happiness whether we mean it or not. Breathing deeply, as if relaxed, can induce relaxation. Power posing for two minutes can make you feel more confident. It’s the same principle (in my mind) as playing music for the mood you want to be in rather than the mood you are in.

Adjectives rule and so do you

This is a two parter. In the first part let’s celebrate the instinct to take time away from forwarding the action to enjoy the details: the view, smell, taste, and atmosphere right now. In improv we make it up but you can savour a real moment or even describe a real memory to someone else and enrich their day.

In the second part we’re talking about letting someone know when we find them awesome. When someone finds you awesome, let that sink in for a moment rather than arguing with them. Enjoy it!

Stick to your relationship rather than trying to make something happen

Sometimes we get bored of what we’ve already got or don’t think it’s good enough. Instead of hunting wildly for a better offer and destroying our scene, or muddling along vaguely without commitment to the scene, we can choose to go further into and deepen the game that is already there. Surprisingly rich and satisfying scenes result.

You can leave the scene

On the other hand, if the scene is over, you don’t have to wait for someone else to rescue you. You can leave of your own accord.

Great laughing!  Everyone join in!

Laughter is social. The best gift you can give a friend (or comedian on stage) is the first laugh. It gives everyone else permission to laugh out loud rather than keeping the enjoyment to themselves. Also the first person on the dance floor, gives permission to everyone else to hit the dance floor. If you’re feeling joy, express it!

There you go – ten pieces of random improv advice that I’ve somehow twisted into (sage?) life advice. What do you think?  Have you got or given a piece of improv wisdom that would be great for life?


Why The Festival?


Clare says: A festival is a lot of work, especially for a small volunteer run team. I remember when the New Zealand Improv Festival was started in Wellington and we were trying to get audience, sponsors, venue etc. At some stage everybody asks themselves – WTF are we doing this for? I asked the folks from Bristol that question.

WTF – Why the festival?

It’s a good question. Why the festival? Why take on so much work (so, so much) with no pay for one week of performances, workshops, and partying? I think the main reason has to be that’s it’s great for the community, and improv is all about community.

Reaching out and making connections, sharing ideas, and supporting each other is exactly what we’re doing on stage so of course we want to be doing it as much as possible off stage as well.

It’s been amazing to see the improv scene in Bristol develop over time: back in 2012 there were a handful of disparate improv groups in Bristol doing their own things, but none of us were really communicating with each other. Now, we’re all one big happy family (almost), and I think a lot of that has to do with the festival.

We started the festival with the idea of bringing the Bristol groups together with the power of a tangible rallying point, something to look forward to, talk about, and cooperate towards. The effect was dramatic, and it’s only been expanding since.

The Bristol scene is thriving, and full of groups that know and love each other, we’ve had some of the biggest acts in the country come to Bristol for the festival, and even international performers!

On a purely selfish level, there’s also the fact that the festival is a heck of a lot of fun. I mean, a whole week of improv with great shows, great workshops, fun and frivolity? Yes please! We get a lot out of the festival as individuals, not just as a community. I don’t think I’ve ever had a week where I had more fun, learned more new things, and grew more as an improviser than at the festival last year.

That’s why the festival, and that’s why I’d recommend it and other improv festivals (Slapdash, The Edinburgh Fringe, start your own!) to anyone and everyone.



My voiceless nightmare

Recently I lost my voice. It isn’t my worst improv nightmare but it came pretty close.

Losing the voice wasn’t the scary bit though.  It was just a random change of season virus. No biggie. I put myself on strict vocal rest. I stopped eating dairy.  I emailed everyone at the day job. I got my improv students to read out the class instructions and scribbled feedback like: ‘Awesome.’ ‘Edit now.’

It was even kind of fun for a while. My happy clown was there when I needed her. I mimed to shopkeepers, made eye contact to get attention, shrugged winsomely in response to pity.  I even got told that I’m ‘cuter’ with no voice.

Although I think there may be a feminist / status analysis required to understand all the nuances in that observation…

Clare whoa face

Anyway, the actual scary bit was not knowing when I’d get the voice back. It comes back to control over the future.  The desire for predictability. I had no control over what I could commit to. And as the voice came back slowly, I had a limit as to how much I could actually do in a day without incurring pain.  Do I cancel that beginners workshop this week?  Do I need a mic for that show next weekend?  Do I pull out of the musical improv show a month from now?

I noticed I used several ways of dealing with the lack of future predictability and these are the same as ones we use on stage as improvisers:

a) stop everything and take no risks (safety obtained!),
b) turn up and see if it works (possible humiliation and failure!)
c) call in my team to back me up (trust!)

While a) can hamper us on stage, it was sensible in many respects for recovery and I also had several great moments employing strategy b), proud that I had learned so much from improv that I could risk fulfilling a couple of jobs where I didn’t really know if it would work with no voice.

But neither strategy a) nor b) would have been possible without c).  My team. This is where your greatest strength as an improviser is on stage. It’s a team game we play and this is just as evident in life as it is on stage.

So thank you to the chap who remembered he had a portable mic and speaker in his car in time for me to perform. Thank you to the student who was so good at interpreting it was like reading my mind. To the one who ferried me to class and back to keep me from cycling in the cold. The team-mate who stepped in with jet-lag to host one night. The ladies who had no certainty I’d be able to perform with them right up until the day of our main stage gig…

All of you had my back and you all seamlessly filled the gaps.Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!


P.S. My voice is back now, so hopefully you didn’t all suddenly realise that I’m not irreplaceable… cos I’m irreplaceable, right guys? …guys?