Basketball coaching guru Sidney Goldstein once astutely noted, “Players do in games exactly as they do in practice. Erratic or inconsistent play in games is 100% due to practice planning problems.”
Likewise, any sort of theatre, whether conventional stage plays, sketch comedy, improv, etc, is only as good as the work put into rehearsal and practice.
The irony of most improvisers treating rehearsal as rigmarole is that how they practice, the habits which they practice, is the most important factor in how well they will do during showtime.
In college, I reached a point where I stopped stressing about exams. I did my homework and reading religiously, before each class, and when you do this you can’t help but learn the material.
I found it sad and amusing to see classmates stress over cramming and studying before the exam, trying to do all the learning they were supposed to do (but didn’t) during the preceding 1-2 months. Meanwhile, I maybe gave the material for the exam a final look over shortly before the exam, but usually didn’t do any extra work beyond what was assigned. My attitude was: By exam week, I either know the material, or I don’t.
This work ethic helped me once I got into theatre. By practicing reciting lines from memory well before I needed to get off-book, I was usually ready to perform off-book early in the process. This in turn made working on the show easy, since I wasn’t multitasking the reading and remembering of lines with learning the blocking and making choices in the moment. I could focus more on how I performed with my scene partner in space.
Take it back to improv. A lot of students and experienced performers treat rehearsal as a task to be tolerated, rather than their chance to develop the level of performance they want to do in front of an audience. Then they wonder why they’re so easily taken out of their game, or why they struggle to do well during showtime.
I take my rehearsal process as seriously as I take the performance, because this is my opportunity to get used to playing at the level I want to play in the show. It’s similar to working out. You can’t bench 300 pounds until you practice benching 100 pounds, then 200 pounds, then 300 pounds. You can’t run a marathon until you practice running long distances over an extended period.
And you can’t expect to perform at a high level without going into rehearsal and, along with practicing the director’s planned exercises, practicing performing at that level in a rehearsal setting.