How Can I Get Out Of My Head?

Getting out of your head refers to the desire to be doing improv without having your head full of rules and thoughts and worries. It means you want to just… play… rather than be paralyzed by all the rules your improv teachers have told you. Getting out of your head also means that you want to stop feeling stuck on stage, that you have lost your instinct of what to do next, and that you are doubting yourself and worrying constantly. You feel that way and you’re tired of it: what can you do?

Closely related to this question is the “I just had a terrible class/practice/show and I’m in a rut and what should I do?” 

These are very common concerns. I would say it’s the number one most frequent question I hear. Part of my job is picking which classes we put up at UCB-NY. If I ever want a class to sell out in zero seconds, I call it “Get Out Of Your Head!”

Zach Woods’ Advice

Well the first and best set of advice I have to offer isn’t even mine. It’s from UCB Performer Zach Woods in an email he sent to then-UCB student (now teacher and performer) Achilles Stamatelakey about this very problem. In Achilles’ words:

In May 2006, I had no confidence in my improv.  After taking classes for a year-and-a-half, I felt like I was only getting worse at performing.  I sent the following e-mail to some of the teachers and coaches I’d worked closely with at the time to seek their advice.

I’m not feeling great about my improv and I hope you can give me some advice.   

I don’t remember when I’ve felt this unconfident in my performance. For the past month or so, I’ve constantly felt indecisive in scenes (both in practices and performances). I also feel way in my head and tentative. I find myself making moves because they seem like the “right” move to make, not because they’re best for the scene or the most fun. I’m making weak choices and end up in mediocre scenes because of it. In other words, I feel like I’m stuck “improvising” rather than “playing” a scene.  

Part of my lack of confidence might stem from having some really great rehearsals and shows in March, then having really high expectations of myself in April during Harold team auditions and not meeting those expectations. That I got rejected from two teacher-approved performance workhops hasn’t helped my confidence either. It’s a vicious cycle.   

What do you do when you feel like you’re in a rut? I want to feel like I’m improving my skills as an improviser in some way, but I haven’t felt confident in weeks. I don’t see myself getting out of this slump anytime soon.   

Thanks again for all your help.  

- Achilles

I got a bunch of responses, all of which I am extremely grateful for. Here is one of those responses:

Hey Achilles,

I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. Everyone gets in ruts from time to time, and I know how discouraging it feels. While there are some things you can do to help, I think the short (and probably disappointing) answer is you’ve just got to ride it out. Ruts always last longer than we want them to, but they don’t last forever. So try to be patient….as impossible as that sounds. 

Here’s some other stuff….

-I think sometimes people who care a great deal about improv can get so wrapped up in the improv community and improv itself that their self-esteem becomes dependent on the quality of their improv. This happens to me more often than I’d like, and it’s always bad news for both my improv and my self-esteem. I think it’s important to remember (especially when you’re  in a slump) that the qualities that make you valuable as a human being have nothing to do with group games or tag-outs. Whether or not you’re a worthwhile person has nothing to do with improv. If you’re doing awesome shows, you could still be an asshole, if you’re doing bad shows you could still be a kind, generous guy. Hopefully you’re not neurotic enough to be plagued by these issues, but, I know I am, so I figured I’d mention this stuff, just in case. So….

Remind yourself that your value as a person is in no way related to, or dependent on the quality of your improv. 

- Another thing that can put people in their heads is a need to “achieve.”

While it’s great to get some validation in the form of recognition or approval, I think it’s best not to put too much stock in external recognition. The warm, mushy feeling that comes from ‘achieving’ (getting put on a team, class, etc.) is fleeting, and soon you’re back to worrying and working and trying to improve. I think it’s good to be patient and to  move at your own rate. Try not to measure your progress against  other people’s progress. I know that’s hard (maybe impossible) but I think if you allow yourself to improve at your own rate, it liberates you from the self-conscious, insecure, self-flaggelation that is anathema to good improv. Put your nose to the grindstone and do the work. It’s important to have goals, but I think it’s also important that those goals be rooted in personal progress rather than external achievement. 

- Slumps are sometimes a result of improv-overkill. If you’ve been watching and doing improv constantly, it’s possible that you’re a bit burnt out. Good improv isn’t inspired by other improv, it’s inspired by life. If all you do is do/watch improv, you may have a deficit of life experiences to draw from.  Take time to do the non-improv activities that you enjoy—  things that have absolutely nothing to do with comedy. This will allow you to recharge.  It will also put you back in touch with the things that make you unique and interesting as a person. That stuff is essential to good improv. Improv isn’t just about game and technique, it’s also about personality. It’s important to take time to do non-comedy things that make you who you are. Listen to the music you like, read a book, fly a kite, hang out with your non-improv friends, go swimming, walk a dog, do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t require a coach. Just get away from improv. 

In a weird way it’s kind of like the game of a scene. If all you do in a scene is hit game, game, game, and you never play the reality of the scene, both the game and the scene will feel inorganic and contrived. Similarly, in life, if all you do is improv, improv, improv, and you don’t do interesting, fun non-improv stuff, your improv will feel stiff, and your life won’t feel so good either (in my experience). 

-Get a new pair of shoes. I don’t know if this works, but I was in a slump once and I asked Peter Gwinn what I should do. He told me to get new shoes and wear them during rehearsals/shows. Make sure they are significantly different from the shoes you currently wear to rehearsals/performances. This might be bullshit, but it might be a miracle cure. 

-Eat healthy, sleep well, exercise. I find that this stuff makes a huge difference. Taking care of your body allows you to focus better, etc. You probably already do this, but if not, eat some soy and get 8 hours of REM. 

- If you feel like a show/rehearsal went badly, don’t beat yourself up. If you notice yourself moping or obsessing over the show, try to do something to take your mind off it. You are not helping your improv by mentally abusing yourself. Self-flaggelation is just a way of indulging one’s own insecurities and fears. Sometimes you can’t help it, but  try to avoid abusing yourself if you can.

- And remember, your slump is temporary. It’s more in your own head than in reality.

Be patient, relax, and your slump will pass. Seriously.

You’re going to be alright,

Zach

PS. I apologize if this email comes off as pedantic and/or convoluted.

Besides the great advice, my favorite part of this e-mail is that Zach apologizes at the end for having written it.  Very Zach.

Yep, that’s pretty good.

Here’s some wordier, less helpful advice on the same subject.

What I Do: Remember Simple Mantras

Expanding on Zach’s “everyone gets in ruts from time to time,” let me overtly state that I feel I am in my head on a fairly regular basis. I’ve done this for 12 years and have achieved some amount of success at least within the society of the UCB Theatre in NYC (perform on a weekly show on the weekend, am one of the senior teachers) and I’d say every 4 or 5 shows I walk off stage convinced, wholly, that I am a fraud, who snuck by everyone who is in charge of deciding who is good by keeping my head down and being quiet at signature moments. 

And so here are the specific things I do when I am feeling “in my head” — and by that I mean when I am feeling doubtful, and unsure of my abilities and unfunny.

First I have a few different mantras I run through in my head. One is “listen and react.” I tell myself to forget everything else and just obey that rule. This is an effort to keep it simple, but to still be participatory.

Another one is I’ll tell myself “be playful.” This was advice my brother gave me before we did a two-prov set. It was the first time we had performed at a particular theatre and we wanted to be good. He grabbed both of my shoulders and looked at me and said “be playful — you’re good when you’re playful” and it freed me of worrying about being “good” or doing it “right.” 

Another trick I will do is to remember a particular improv class I had in which I always felt great. For me it’s my fourth improv class. For some reasons, whether it was the teacher or the people in that class I don’t fully know, I always felt confident and capable in that class.  When I’m backstage before a show and feeling lousy I will quietly invoke the feeling of being in the backline of that class. It helps me recall some muscle memory of that confidence.

A final trick I will do — and I bet this reveals some problem with intimacy or something but who gives a crap if it helps my show — is that I pretend that I am performing with strangers. Sometimes with people I know I get tentative and unsure and I will second guess myself. When playing strangers I become a nice combination of decisive but polite. I listen more but I also make bold moves. It helps. So sometimes I’ll tell myself that everyone I’m playing with are strangers.

Some other thoughts to consider if you’re in your head:

The Last Show

Part of this phenomenon is that you only feel as good as your very last class/practice/show. You can have 1,000 great scenes in a row, but once you have a bad one, you walk away saying “maybe I’m terrible at this.” It’s easy to have a short memory when assessing yourself. 

The good side of that is it only take one “good” class/practice/show to feel better again. Often then best way to get out of your head, is simply to do more of it, and increase the odds that you will do a scene where things go your way and you walk out feeling better.

Beware Trying To Please Just One Person (Who Isn’t You)

Let’s get some data here: is it ONE PERSON who is making you feel in your head? Like have you started taking a class, and the teacher doesn’t seem to be impressed with you, or maybe even actively seems to be unimpressed with you? Are you “in your head” trying to please this one person? It’s understandable to want to please your teacher but you should know that everyone who takes even a small number of improv teachers will invariably run into a class or teacher that they simply don’t jibe with. 

That doesn’t mean that you’re bad at this, it means you’re in a particular context that is making you feel a bit out of sorts.  Do not get in the habit of letting your view of yourself be dependent on what someone else thinks of you. Especially one particular person.

If possible, try to enjoy this as a learning opportunity. It’s bad to worry about someone else’s opinion of you, but if that other person is a teacher there may be something to learn here.

My second level improv class was like this. The teacher was actively and evidently bored by anything I did. And watching his glassy-eyed expression when I started scenes I became painfully aware of myself as a boring performer. My first reaction was to be angry at him for not simply liking me more (mind you, I do not know what he ACTUALLY thought, this was my impression — though certainly he was not laughing or smiling). 

But then I was able to shift my mindset and think of him as representing the portion of an audience that would not like me. Like, let’s assume that no matter how great you become at improv, there will be people who simply do not enjoy your work. What if you could isolate that section of the audience, get them into a lab, and practice with JUST THEM until you “figure out” what it is they want? Wouldn’t that be interesting to know?

I gave up on the idea of this teacher ever truly liking me, and instead started scanning for little moments of victory. I determined that this teacher liked very very small moves —- and that he hated almost any big twists or fantastical elements.  The smaller, the more natural the better. I abandoned the idea of being funny, or being impressive, and tried simply to say things that felt honest in the moment. I got a few smirks. I got a “good scene.”

I can’t say I ever “beat” this teacher. Other students got huge reactions out of him, but he never even learned my name (until years later). But I learned how to be comfortable in the environment where he wasn’t cheerleading me. I learned to have a sense of accomplishment just by staying in touch with my own thoughts while in his class. I didn’t need him to like me; I was learning stuff anyway.

Are You Pleasing Yourself?

“Being in your head” often comes after you do a class or show and feel unliked by the audience: be it other classmates a teacher or an actual audience. But how do YOU feel about what you did? Rather than fall into an amorphous feeling a general self-doubt, can you pick a particular goal and measure yourself against this? 

For example, do you wish to be initiating more clearly? That is something that you can do better at within the context of one session. The trick is to know that you may in fact do well at your goal, and still not have the overwhelming approval from others that you’re subconsciously (or maybe consciously) looking for. Forget other people’s reactions. Did you accomplish your goal?

I had a show recently in which I just wanted to “be in the moment” and not pre-plan any moves. Meaning if I was in a scene with multiple people, I didn’t want to mentally leave the scene and start to think about “what would sound cool” as that is a trap I personally fall into. I wanted to just be in the scene, and react when the action of the scene headed my way. Well, I did that, and the results were … well, not great. My responses were a bit slow, and stodgy and not immediately funny. But, as I assessed myself after, they WERE natural, they were truthful, they were real. I had accomplished my goal. I was proud of it, even though it hadn’t led to the amazing show I also wanted — I avoided getting in my head by being proud of hitting the goal *I* wanted to hit.

Be Patient

Another question: how long have you been doing improv? Is it less than a year? Then “being in your head” is just part of learning something new. You can’t avoid it. You wouldn’t expect to be able to sit at a piano and improvise beautiful songs after just ten months of lessons. Yet improv students seem to get frustrated if, during their first year of study, they find it difficult. You understand that to learn something means to go through a period in which you are clumsy at it, right? Well, maybe you’re just in one of those necessary phases of being clumsy. Rest easy: you are growing more powerful.

Don’t Compare

Remember that you don’t have to be the BEST to be good enough. You will see classmates and others who are better than you. There is room for you to be good even though there will ALWAYS be someone who is just… better. 

Avoid Heady Challenges

Are you working on getting ideas from an opening? Are you working on “game” — meaning are you working on having clear and simple comedic ideas that define your whole scene? Those are two notoriously thinky goals. There’s almost no way to practice them and not feel “in your head.” 

So one way to get out of your head is: take a break from working on that stuff. Find a workshop or a practice where there are no openings, and no focus on game. Focus on “saying yes” and “committing.” That leads to fun scenework that is light and easy. Without game, your scenes may amble from different idea to different idea. Without an opening, they may take a while to get going. But you will feel lighter and easier.

There are workshops and teachers who specialize in this type of work. They’ll often sell themselves as “get out of your head” workshops. There will be a lot of physical work — matching each other or starting with a big silly move and then justifying it. Or maybe there will be exercises where you make a big emotional choice and then immediately start heightening it. They are fun, freeing exercises. Might be just what you need to re-discover the fun of doing improv.

Mind you: these are just vacations. At some point, you’re going to have to immerse yourself in the “heady” challenges of getting ideas from an opening, or minding the game of your scene. But there’s nothing wrong with taking a break from that stuff to re-energize yourself with fun in the meantime.

Practice Being A Fan Of Yourself

I know that I’m venturing into saccharine bumper sticker-sized therapy here, but an essential skill to doing this is recalling the feeling that you are fundamentally a funny person. Not the MOST funny, not the MOST charismatic, but just —— funny.

Once we like a performer, we are very forgiving of moments in which he or she falls short in a show. We barely notice them since we so surely believe that a better moment is coming down the road.  

Can you simply decide to have that same attitude towards yourself?

You MUST believe that on some level you are funny or smart or charming or you wouldn’t have been able to walk into that first improv class.

Somewhere in you is the belief that you are good. Make that feeling grow. When you have a good scene in class, when you are funny in a conversation with someone at work, when you write a funny email — and you know it — hold onto that feeling. Picture it like a seedling sprouting in the vast prairies of your mind and give it water and sun. Let that feeling grow. It is ultimately what will solve the problem of being in your head forever: the belief that you are good, and that when things aren’t going well that you are a good person having a bad day. 

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