Tag Archives: storytelling

Ruts, and how to get out of a rut

At some point during this past week, my comfort level on stage suddenly, inexplicably dropped. Whether or not my improv looks okay to the outside observer, I don’t feel comfortable with my improv, or feel like I know what I’m doing. This is what people generally refer to as a “rut”.

I’ve taken stock to see if something in my life’s out of whack:

– Life hasn’t been any busier or more annoying than usual.
– My schedule’s actually been somewhat lighter than usual, but still fairly active with things I want to do. So I’m not being overwhelmed. I do have a couple non-improv shows coming up but I feel comfortably prepared for them.
– Emotionally, I actually feel fairly good about where life’s at.
– I’ve been getting decent sleep (even naps!), my diet’s actually improved the last few weeks, I’ve been drinking plenty of water (especially with the rising temperature in Chicago), and I’ve been exercising regularly with good results. So health wise I’ve taken reasonable care of myself.
– I’ve felt tired at times, but no more than usual… and the occurence of those tired periods have mostly made sense, e.g. after a workout, or after a long and busy day.

You can blame Mercury in Retrograde, my Emotional and Physical Biorhythms being out of whack, or government radio waves or some other crazy thing. But I presume personal ruts randomly hit all of us now and then, like a basketball player who can’t hit shots, a baseball hitter who can’t seem to get hits, a bowler who can’t seem to string together strikes, a runner whose per-mile pace has dropped and can’t seem to pick back up, or even an everyday worker who can’t seem to stop making little mistakes.

The important thing about ruts, and what gets people down within them, is to realize you’re better than this. You know what you’re capable of doing well, and it eats at you that you’re in a stretch where you’re not doing them well.

How as a performer do you work through a rut and get out of it? Being in one right now, I gave it some good thought… and came back to six principles(, because I figured since this is a period of bad luck, I’d go to my lucky number six).

1. Stop caring (for now) about the results.

The negative emotions we feel in a rut are a product of letting the small sample size of our results emotionally affect us, which can create a vicious self-perpetuating cycle of more negative results. So stop caring if you’ll fail, especially if right now mentally you believe you will fail again anyway. Be in the moment and let the results of your actions happen without emotional judgment.

This will feel liberating, success or fail. The subsequent results may (pleasantly) surprise you a bit.

2. Focus in the moment on your practice of the basics.

In improv, I like to re-double my focus on what I consider the key improv principles: Relationships, attention to detail (in listening and in action), and commitment to the moment. Sometimes we get in ruts because we’re out of whack with one or more of the basics. Even if not, focusing on the basics gets your mind off being in a rut, while keeping your practice and focus on things that will get you out of it.

Other disciplines have their basic foci. Runners can focus on consistent breath and form as they run. Basketball players can focus on their shot/dribbling/defense mechanics and the correct range of motion to take effective shots. Baseball hitters can focus on the mechanics of their bat swing. In the workplace, you can (usually) double check or methodically work through your tasks.

In every case, one important point to remember is to:

2a. Finish every action before you begin another one.

This is a holdover principle from my theatre training (thanks to George Lewis and Geof Alm). Too often, sloppiness and poor execution comes from rushing our actions and not letting them “land”. You can’t take the next step without the last step hitting the ground. Ruts often come with a lacking attention to detail, and making sure to finish every action will force a restoration of attention to detail.

3. Take notes (and I don’t mean write ideas down).

Being in a rut during an improv class, practice or rehearsal, or if you’re on a sports team with a coach, may be a blessing. An instructor, coach or director watching you can give you notes on things they see you need to do or improve. When a mentor gives you a note, make a point to apply it as soon as you get the chance. With improv this is easy: Take the note and immediately endow your work with it in the next scene, and (if it’s a general note) the next scene. This almost certainly will produce positive results, even if merely a positive reaction from your mentor and peers. It may not clear the rut but it’ll get you moving in the right direction. Be open to notes, then make sure to apply them early and often.

The last three aren’t as relevant to your practice as they are to your life.

4. Get your exercise.

Do you do or have you done an exercise plan? If so, great. Do it regularly, whether or not you already have. Staying active and helping improve your body’s circulation will do wonders for your general outlook, which will also help break you out of your rut.

Oh, you don’t exercise? Now would be a good time to start. If you get no exercise, walk around the neighborhood or workplace for half an hour a day. If you already walk, consider something easy to break into, like jogging. Or the Hacker’s Diet or 5BX exercise plans, which are easy exercise plans designed to be done quickly each day.

5. Eat some good (i.e. healthy) food.

Chances are your diet isn’t anywhere close to ideal, whether or not you make the effort to eat a healthy diet. If you practice a sound ans somewhat strict diet, then great. More power to you, and make sure to get a good share of protein and brain food (however your dietary choices allow you; vegans, cut down on the soy and eat some fucking quinoa. Way more vitamins!).

If you do eat a lot of processed food and assorted junk, try cutting it out for a meal or two. Mix in some fresh fruit, vegetables, lean meat or non-meat protein, some juice. And of course, drink plenty of water. Our diets can mess with us, both in good ways and bad. Eating a lot of crap over an extended period can leave you feeling worn down, which can contribute to a rut.

Likewise, eating more wholesome food than usual can do more for your outlook and energy than meets the eye… and can help you break a rut, whether the nutrients boost your energy and help flush the crap from your body, or the act of eating better has a positive placebo effect on your outlook.

6. Get as much rest as you reasonably can.

Chances are you’re not getting 7 or more hours of sleep a night, if your sleep habits are consistent to begin with. Losing sleep, whether over a day or over a long period, can start to wear on your outlook and everything else you do. If you can force yourself to turn out the lights at 10-11pm for a few nights in a row, or mix in a nap on a free afternoon, the extra rest can not only re-energize your body but it may improve a sleep-deprived dour mood and might help crack your rut.

Also, if you’re working a busy schedule, try to book some time to relax, not do anything and not feel guilty about it. Sometimes our work overload gets us in ruts, and clearing space to not work can help the brain reset. Often, getting away from a problem for a bit can help us solve it once we come back with a fresh, rested mind. When we memorize material, taking time away from memorizing helps the material settle in our minds. When we exercise, it’s the time spent resting and recovering when our muscles grow from the workouts.

Sometimes, even when we’re getting enough rest, some extra rest can help us break a rut.


So there you go, six points of focus to help break a rut. I wrote this as much for myself as I did for you the reader. I’m in a rut, but with some simple points of focus and self care, I expect I’ll either break out of it soon, or stop caring about it enough to notice either way.

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Memorizing backwards

I’ve been making a mistake all my life, and as a result have run into the same (and now obvious) problem.

Let’s say you have a piece of written material to memorize. Like most, I start at the beginning of a piece, memorize the first bit, then work to memorize everything after it one section at a time.

You tend to nail the beginning, but then the memory and preparation of the latter part isn’t as great. Likewise, some people memorize certain key chunks of the piece, then fill in their memory of the rest later. They still run into the same problem, nailing the key parts while their memory of the transitional parts isn’t as solid.

It can slow you down in practice or, even worse, performance. Unless you’ve got the piece on lock in your mind, you can hit a spot you don’t know as well, forget and draw a blank. The terror of the moment can even prevent you from comfortably jumping to a subsequent section you might know better. This is probably the one aspect of performing work from memory that has always terrified me the most.

In the rest of our lives, we learn that a key to success is to start with an end goal and figure out step by step how you get there. Often, by backtracking or working backwards, you better piece together how to get to that goal. (This also helps you find stuff you lost)

Likewise, it finally occurred to me to try backtracking in memorization. Start by memorizing the end of a piece, either the last sentence, paragraph or whatever section you can comfortably put on lock in a short period of time. Then go back to the previous section, learn that, and then recite the two parts together.

Any struggle to do the first section from memory is rewarded with the momentum of a subsequent section you know well. You gain momentum as you do the piece, rather than losing momentum from subsequent parts being more unfamiliar.

I’m glad I finally started learning pieces backwards. You might want to give it a shot.

EDIT: Looks like I’m not the only one to have thought of this!

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Make your own opportunities to practice and perform

When I called into question the utility of auditions, I alluded to but didn’t really discuss an important point: The ability of performers to empower themselves and create their own opportunities, rather than rely on auditions to get performance opportunities outside of classes and jams.

While forming a group to practice and play with isn’t a slam dunk, the real barrier is fear, a lack of self confidence and a resulting unwillingness to commit by players. You don’t do it because you don’t think you’ll have the commitment and the ability to a) follow through with a regular schedule on your own as players, and b) get better and challenge yourselves.

With classes and jams, you have an instructor or a leader buggy whipping you all the way, plus an audience of peers who (usually) are cheering your efforts on. If a group of you decide to meet and practice together, there is usually no experienced mentor leading the way. You are effectively directing and leading yourselves.

Without that mentor or leader to answer to, there to push you, there’s a great temptation to either flake and not attend, or to not try as hard as you would in class or a jam. People don’t have the respect for a voluntary practice among a group of peers that they do for a class they paid $200-350 for (and in some cases get punished for not attending), or for a jam in front of mentors and peers (which they often paid to participate in).

Don’t think I didn’t run into this challenge when a bunch of us formed Wonderland in Seattle, or with myself in everything I’ve done. It takes a collective commitment, as well as a bit of personal investment, to start a group and not only keep it grow but to continue growing and improving together. It was hard to keep the group on the same page, to have the lacking commitment of some not derail or bring down the work of everyone that’s committed to getting good.

Someone has to wrangle everybody. Someone has to find rehearsal space and (usually) pay to book it. And, most of all, people not only have to agree to participate but actually show up, almost every time. And that never minds that the success of the group from there is about how seriously everyone takes the practice. Or actually booking a show, paying for the venue, and somehow finding enough friends, family and word of mouth to fill the venue for that show. It’s very hard to be a leader of something so relatively nebulous.

I recalled this whole idea when I read Joshua Ellis’ piece this morning on empowering people to learn to code. The title and premise of his piece mirrors my point on starting a group: The trick is that there is no trick.

The barnstorming improv groups you see in Chicago, Seattle, NYC, LA, anywhere… there was no special requirement (like completing a training program) or magic formula to their success. They didn’t even necessarily have to finish their respective school curriculae (and many didn’t). Once they had a handle on what they wanted to do in improv, and once they discovered a group of people they liked practicing with… they formed a group, met and practiced regularly. Eventually, they developed the confidence in each other and their work to produce or appear in shows, and that was that.

Yes, it certainly helps to be well trained, to have a knowledgeable and strong-minded leader, to have an uncanny sense of cooperation among the group and the right people, to know people that can hook you up with space or gigs in improv shows, etc etc etc.

But so many groups came into it sort of trained, with no hookup other than a space they could afford to rent, with a rough idea of what they were doing and maybe one or two people confident enough to steward the ship.

And that’s the secret. There’s never going to be a right time, when you’re ready. You’re never ready. And yet, you’re always ready. You’re always going to be learning, and always going to feel to some degree uncomfortable.

You’re never really going to figure out what works and what doesn’t until you actually, seriously attempt to do it… much like you were never going to learn improv until you made the effort to sign up and come to classes. And often times you not only won’t have that expert assistance, but you probably don’t even need it. You can learn how to do it yourself, and can learn a lot more about being a practicing improviser from actually trying and failing and learning to do it better than to go to class and then hardly get to practice at all unless you go back to class, become addicted to jams, or somehow score off an audition.

If you take nothing else away from this post, and my audition post, it’s that you and your peers have the power to create your own opportunities. And that rather than wait and hope that someone will cast you in something, all of you should get together and just make your own opportunity. Take that $5 you’d have spent on a jam, pool it with 6-8 other people, and rent a rehearsal room for 2-3 hours a week. Find some exercises you want to practice, or just do some scenework. If you want to do a show, practice scenes for a couple months, then get in on a show or find another group to split the bill with. Just do a 20-30 minute montage if all you want to do is scenes. Just do it, see what happens and learn from it.

As with many things, 80% of the challenge is just making yourself do it.

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Deliberate practice, focused practice, and a better rule of thumb than “10,000 hours”

Let’s talk about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours postulate, and performance art.

Let’s never mind he referred specifically to mere practice, when it’s honestly deliberate practice that improves your ability.
The bigger issue is there is almost no one who can amass 10,000 hours of active improv experience, or such experience in many other performance disciplines.

Let’s say the average skilled, hard-working improv performer, between shows, jams, practices, even classes when applicable, can reasonably expect to get in an average of 10 hours of active, feedback-available improvising a week. There are weeks where they can get much more, and weeks where they get little to none at all, but it averages out to 10 a week.

Over a year, that totals 520 hours. At that pace, without a break, it would take about 20 uninterrupted years to amass Gladwell’s mythical 10,000 hours. And again, that’s hours of active practice, not time spent sitting and watching improv, or sitting in class or practice watching teammates, or any moment spent not physically practicing the task.

Even long timers like Del Close and Joe Bill have spent far more time observing, analyzing and discussing improv than they have actually doing it on stage. If we somehow had a transparent view of every moment of their lives, and added up all their time spent actively improvising scenework, they’d each probably fall well short of 10,000 hours. Yet they and many others have undeniable expertise as improvisers.

(While one may attempt to theoretically call observation practice, and there is value in watching the work of others, your act of observing does not necessarily develop your ability to do the task you’re watching… certainly no more than watching 10,000 hours of baseball on TV, even with a trained eye, makes you a great baseball player. You may develop your ability to listen, observe and analyze. But you’re not really developing your ability to *do* what you’re watching.)

There is one time based rule I feel may be more valuable, but it operates on a micro level than a macro level.

The rule is: For every minute of performance in a show, you need to put in one hour of rehearsal. For a five minute piece, five hours of rehearsal on the piece is good. For a sixty minute piece, 60 hours. Even with improvisers, a 20 minute set goes well with at least 20 hours of practice for that show by the team.

As someone who has fallen on his face many times in many performance situations, and prepared pieces with both far more and far less time working than 1 hour per minute of show, I’ve found in my experience that this is largely true. Exceptions aside, pieces thrown together in less time tend to come off slapdash. Once that threshold is crossed, the piece/set feels solid and I feel confident about what I’m doing, whether what we’re doing is a prepared piece or improvised.

Why is this true? Why is this the threshold?

One tenet I’ve found helpful is the notion that you forget 90% of what you’re told. You may remember main ideas or key things said, but you won’t remember most every other word.

Let’s cross apply this to reading a poem you have to memorize. The poem takes about a minute to recite. You read it aloud off the paper, start to finish. If I had you put the paper down and recite as much of it from memory as you could, you might remember 10% of it. That’s not a far fetched assumption for most.

Let’s say I had you read the poem off the paper twice in a row, and try to recite from memory after that. The first recital, you’d forget 90% of it. The second time around, you’d remember the first 10%. And of the 90% you didn’t remember the first time, you still wouldn’t remember 90% of that the second time, but you’d pick up 10% of what you forgot the first time. The parts you remembered the first time are strengthened, plus you also pick up parts the 2nd time around.

90% x 90% = 81% forgotten = 19% remembered

So basically, each time you read the poem off the paper, you further ingrain the parts you remembered while picking up about 10% of the parts you didn’t fully remember.

If you read it three times, it snowballs accordingly.

90% x 90% x 90% = 73% forgotten = 27% remembered

By this rule, you would need to read the poem aloud six times to memorize 60% of the poem. To remember 80%, you’d have to repeat the process 16 times. 90% remembered? 23 times. The more you do it, the more of the poem you remember, but the less new information you pick up each time. However, obviously, your knowledge of the parts you first picked up strengthens with each repetition.

Calculations based on this logic indicate that it takes at least 52 read-throughs to round up to 100%, i.e. 99.6% mastered. Reading the poem off the page an even 60 times gets you to 99.8%. Assuming a minute each time around, that adds up to about an hour to fully memorize than one minute poem. Boom.

You can easily cross apply this logic to scripts, storytelling, whatever. And it’s not even a matter of memory: We can swap out ‘memory’ for ‘mastery of the show’, e.g. blocking, artistic navigation of the material, how you perform it. Maybe I can read the text of Drawn Dead in 25 minutes, so it would take me 25 hours to memorize the script. It would take me 3 hours of physical work to perfect the blocking of a 3 minute physical theatre scene in the show (and that’s not necessarily a 3 hours rehearsal, since rehearsals do have downtime to rest, discuss or analyze).

Part of my difficulty with Drawn Dead is that, once the show’s script was fully fleshed out in 2013, John Leith and I didn’t have 55 hours to perfect this 55 minute show. We had a handful of rehearsals, and shortly before the show I had to shoo him away so I could memorize and practice the revised script and our rehearsed blocking. I’d imagine that, if we had three months (meeting twice a week), we would have felt far more confident. The show still turned out good (thanks in part to the low pressure of small supportive audiences, and some artistic engineering on my part), but it would’ve felt far better for both of us had we had another couple months to prepare.

Meanwhile, my Seattle improv group Wonderland slogged through a ton of rehearsals, but by the time we finally headlined our first show with a 30 minute set, we had been practicing as a group for well over 30 hours. Our show was pretty awesome.

Rather than clocking hours of work towards overall experthood, clock hours towards full preparation for your next performance.

Truth be told, every show is a new situation. Whether or not you’re an expert at a subject, generally you’re never an expert at your next project. You have to develop your knowledge and skill at that project before you perform it. It may be better to focus on preparing for your next piece or show than to clock hours towards a mythical, and unreasonable, expertise.

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