In my time as a performer, I’ve had good shows and I’ve had bad shows. I put “bad show” in quotations for a reason, which you’ll see why later. You can’t always be ‘on’ nor should you be. You need to have a bad show every once in a while to bring yourself back down from cloud nine. Most importantly, a bad show keeps you humble and it keeps you hungry. The feeling I have after a bad show is the worst. So bad that I don’t want to feel that ever again. So bad that I actually want to perform again that night to get another try. I didn’t always think that way though. There were times where I would let a bad show ruin my night or week and dwell on it. However, with time, I learned that dwelling on it wasn’t pushing me forward, but instead holding me back. Below I’ve listed some things or ideas to keep it mind that have worked for me when walking off stage after what I considered a “bad show.”
1. Identify what didn’t work
You have to take a step back and think about what occurred during the show that didn’t work for you. Specifically, what YOU did personally during the show. DO NOT and I repeat DO NOT tell others what they did that didn’t work during the show. Leave it to your coach to identify what other people did or didn’t do wrong. It’s not your place to say, “Hey you played a character that steamrolled the whole show!” That will always be taken as a personal attack and it’s also not your place to say such a thing. So, think about what you did specifically during the show that didn’t work. Maybe you came out and said a line trying to be funny and it bombed. Maybe you played a character that was a bit over the top and didn’t allow your partners room to speak. Identify those SPECIFIC things so that you can work on them or stop doing them in future shows. If you’re someone who is constantly running out to be in the first scene and your shows have been lacking lately, maybe take a step back and let someone else have a try.
2. Identify what did work
This may seem contradictory to the above concept, but it’s not. There are so many different facets to an improv show. It’s easy to walk off stage after a show that didn’t get many laughs and think the entire show was a failure. However, that’s not always true. At a basic level, you would consider that a “bad show”, but in reality there is no such thing as a bad show in my opinion. There are off shows sure, but not ‘bad.’ There is always something someone has done in a show, no matter what, that is something creative they brought to the table. Remember we’re getting on stage and making things up, which takes confidence, courage, and creativeness. The three 3 C’s. It could be a minor detail of the scene (“this cabin is cold”) or just calling your scene partner “Dad” or “Mom.” Those are ideas and they wouldn’t have occurred had you or your partner not brought them to the table. Remember that. A bad show would be two people standing there staring at each other saying absolutely nothing for 25 minutes. You have to think about the things that you did during the show that were minor accomplishments. For example, I did a show in a bar (barprov) where there were little to no laughs from the audience. I could have considered that a failure, but instead I focused on the things that worked well for me and bettered myself as a performer like good scene work, object work, and the edits being on point. There is always a silver lining. There’s always a plus side. I’ve (and I’m sure we all have) heard audience members say, “I could never get on stage and do what you do.” Remember that when you stop and think, “I suck” because you’re doing something that is considered inspiring in someone else’s eyes.
3. Be critical
Don’t bullshit yourself. In the past, I would say to myself, “well I was having fun and that’s all that matters” after I had an off show. I wasn’t identifying what did or didn’t go wrong or right, but instead just saying, “hey that was great guys!” That mindset was not getting me any better. I wasn’t moving forward, but instead staying stuck in the rut that I had now created for myself. Sure, having fun is one of the main reasons why I started doing comedy in the first place, but I also want to be a good performer and I strive to be better at doing something I love. I started to be more critical and rather than patting myself on the back for a mediocre show I started being much harder on myself. For example, something I may say to myself now would be say “that character got laughs (good), but I repeated that catch phrase too many times which watered down the character (bad).” If the show didn’t go well then tell yourself that. If you want to be good at something you have to be a relentless critic of yourself. There is always a better to your best. You can walk off stage having the best show of your life or the worst show of your life, but there will always be something that you could have done better.
4. Move on
The show is over and there is nothing you can do to go back in time and change that. That’s a fact and until time machines are created there is no changing that. There is no point in living in the past nor should you want to. After a show, briefly (by brief I mean 10 minutes) take time to identify the things that worked and didn’t work and then MOVE ON. Sure, you had a bad show and it sucks, but you can’t live in that. You can’t dwell on that. You have to take the notes you’re given (even if you’re giving them to yourself), and look forward to the future. This is something that applies to any failure in life. You don’t want to live in the failure and be miserable about it all the time but instead learn from it and strive to be better.
5. Schedule another show
If you don’t have another show scheduled on your calendar then schedule one. As we’ve all heard from Batman Begins, “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” I remember that line every time I fail at something in life. We fail so that we can learn from it and work harder about so it never happens again. One of the biggest motivators for me after an ‘off show’ is knowing that I will always have another chance. There will always be another opportunity to try again. Having an off show also brings you back down and reminds you that you’re not untouchable. It keeps you hungry.
As a performer, no matter what level you consider yourself (beginner or advanced), you will always have good and bad shows. It’s inevitable. You won’t be hitting homeruns at every single show you perform in and even if you’re consistently getting laughs, there is always a better to your best. You need to constantly challenge yourself and be hard on yourself so that you can grow as a performer. You need to identify the things that worked and the things that didn’t work for a short period of time after a show and then look forward to the future to apply what you learned.
Once again, that’s only until time machines have been created.
Ryan Nallen is a graduate of the iO Training Center, the Second City Conservatory, and the Annoyance Theater in Chicago. Ryan performs regularly with his independent team Switch Committee as well as on the Playground team Desperado. In addition, he is an Associate Producer for Big Little Comedy, which produces the Big Little Comedy Fest each year. In January 2013, he completed an entire month of comedy by performing 31 days in a row. He’s a frequent blogger (ryannallen.com, NIN, iO Water Cooler), Pinterester, Instagramer and Tweeter. Based on that previous sentence, it can be assumed that he has no life.