How to Beat Improv Foot
Note: This article was originally published on MirageMachineImprov.com on August 10, 2015.
This is an article about a thing called improv foot. But, to get to that, I need to get this out.
Once upon a time, I had trouble writing something. Some people call it “writer’s block.” I call it “feeling sucking at being creative.” It’s a horrendous feeling that calls into question all self-value. In reality, I was doing about a billion different things at the same time (and they were all due at the same time of immediately), but it didn’t stop me from feeling horrendous and not taking a step back and going, “Hmm. I wonder if I’m doing okay.”
Truth was I was doing okay. Bad feelings make people have that lovely thing of not being able to get out of your own head. At least, that’s the way it works for me. Once you start feeling negative, you’ve got to get retribution, whether it’s at someone else or, in most cases involving me, at myself. I have to punish myself. DON’T YOU REALIZE YOU SHOULD BE A GENIUS ALL THE TIME?
I’ve seen this so many times in improv, too. My favorite example of someone screaming at themselves is “improv foot.” I know that you’ve seen it before unless you’re reading this article as someone that’s never seen improv. So I should explain.
In an improv show, you’ve got your featured players on stage. Sometimes, on the side, are eager players that can’t wait to, “Yes, and” their partners. Boy, are they excited to yes and their partners. Suddenly, one of them gets a great idea and lurches forward. They take their first step out! It’s about to go into overdrive!
they lurch backwards.
They keep their idea inside.
For some reason, their instincts were strong enough in one second to lurch forward. At some point, this improvisor was going to herself, “I cannot wait to do this idea. This is the bee’s knees!” Dated colloquialisms aside, this person couldn’t wait to do this thing.
Then the block kicks in. Like a swift punch to the gut, the block blocks the player from jumping in. Now, instead of creating, the improvisor is doing one of several things:
“That wasn’t a good idea.”
“I’ll let it breathe. My idea wasn’t strong enough.”
“Don’t lose sight of the focus. My idea will be better somewhere else.”
“Crap. This idea doesn’t fit in with this scene anymore.”
Those four lines of thinking are indicative of one thing: calling your idea not good enough. I’m sure there are other assaults that people do on themselves to punish upon contracting improv foot. These are the four that I can think of.
Here’s the Thing about Improv Foot
Those harmful thoughts that are assaulting you aren’t you: that’s the improv block. That’s an external force that has commandeered your brain into thinking that your idea is less than. It’s an external force that is saying you and your decision making faculties are less than.
Some more experienced improvisors might be going, “Well, sometimes it is good to hang back.” You bet it is. Absolutely it is. Applaud yourself for thinking that it’s good to hang back. It lets things breathe and can let things develop.
However, improv foot is something more. Improv foot is a start and stop. Improv foot is someone trusting themselves, then beating themselves up immediately. Hanging back can be instinctual after a time. Going out on stage can also be instinctual. Improv foot is a dangerous form of instinct where you are denying yourself from hanging back and going out at the same time.
That conflict within can kill the human spirit. Every day, we’re beat down by other people telling us we’re not good enough. About 99% of the time, I bet the person that is beating you down is you. If you’re like me, it’s probably because one person in second grade said you were weird. That means you constantly fight against yourself to not be weird, but to also be the person that you’ve always wanted to be. Sucks, doesn’t it?!
Improv foot is a scourge. It is a virus that needs to be eliminated. There is only one vaccine that can sufficiently vanquish the evil that is improv foot.
You need to fail. Hard. Fail hard. Do something so awful, you are repulsed by your decision to do that thing.
Then watch what people do around you.
Unless you’re taking a deuce in someone’s coffee while also on stage, chances are the worst thing you’re thinking about doing is not exactly the worst thing. At its worst, what you are going to do will simply be okay. While this is not the best thing in the world, it is certainly not the worst thing in the world. You need to remember that.
Improv Foot and Steve Spielberg
The thing which is reinforced time and time again is greatness. We all strive to be great. In fact, a lot of us strive to have perfection within our work. While perfection is a great goal, it is simply that: a goal. I guarantee you the masters of storytelling that you worship have all had off days. Spielberg made Jurassic Park, but he also made The Lost World.
That’s one of the benefits of being human: the built in capacity to have a day off from being excellent. If we are performing the basic tenet of being human, which is being decent to each other, you will forgive them for having a day off. Plus, if you look at the work they’ve done, you go, “Wow, you’re still incredible.” What was once amazing creatively does not stop being amazing due to increasing context. Even M. Night Shymalan had one transcendent piece of work. You don’t factor in “The Last Airbender” and then go, “Oh, well, I guess Sixth Sense wasn’t that good.”
If we extend forgiveness to Spielberg and Shymalan, why can we then not extend that forgiveness to ourselves? There is a fixation on perfection that has permeated our culture, extending to beating ourselves up in improv. If it’s not perfect first time out of the gate, then it’s useless. Forget that. Forget perfection. It is impossible to be perfect. You cannot be perfect. Also, Steven Spielberg will never be perfect. Mark Sutton and Jill Bernard will never be perfect. They can be really, really, really good. There will always be one person that goes, “I didn’t like this” and have a GREAT reason why it’s not good.
Here’s Your Homework
Work on loving yourself. You standing in front of an audience of people is already a victory. You have made a decision to wake up, get out of bed, put on clothes, get resources together to be on a stage, make the drive, get to the theater, and get on the stage. Though these might seem like small things, a majority of the world DOES NOT DO THESE THINGS. You do. That means you’re a success because you’ve achieved your tiny goals.
Until you gain confidence in yourself, you have one obligation: like the stuff you do. This extends to things beyond improv, too, but we’ll focus on the improv aspect of it all. If you’re suffering from improv foot, you need to start looking at all the things out there and do it. Find the choices that make you not have improv foot. Believe that your improv foot is stopping you from trying. The audience will probably not stop whatever they’re doing to make fun of you. Instead, they will like you.
What ultimately matters is what you like. No one can take that away from you except yourself.