Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Plateau: a criminal oversimplification

This summer, I've been working with my friend Brendon on a two-person show* called Flash Fiction. We had our first show a couple of weeks ago after about 8 weeks of practice.

This is a mathematically precise chart** of our progress over the summer:

You know what communicates mathematical precision? Paintbrush.

A is our first two or three practices. We were figuring out what we wanted the show to be and getting our scene legs. While we have 18ish years of improv experience between us, neither of us had ever done a two-person show. The initial learning curve was huge. It took us a couple of practices to loosen up and articulate our goals.

B is the middle several practices. Let's call it practice 4, 5, and 6. I realize that, on the chart, it is MUCH LONGER than A, even though it represents a similar period of time. This chart is not following calendar time. It's following how the time felt. We plateaued for a few weeks, and that plateau felt like it lasted forever and ever amen. We weren't bombing; we just weren't getting better very quickly anymore. Everything we did was ok. Just ok.

C is our last three weeks of practice before the show. Every piece felt amazingly better than the piece that came before it. We played hard and smart. It was the kind of playing that reminds me why I do improv in the first place. I don't know exactly how we pushed out of that plateau; good coaches and a Jet Eveleth workshop certainly helped.

D is our show. It was not our best work, but it was not our worst, either. It was on par with our plateau. This is consistent with several other troupes I've played with and coached. Even if you have experience, it takes a few performances for a troupe to really find its legs. A show introduces variables -- a different space, an audience, logistics -- that can throw you. I thought they wouldn't throw me this time, but they did. The space was unexpectedly weird, the audience was larger than we'd anticipated, and the tech was rocky. It takes practice not to be distracted by those things.

We have another show in a few weeks, so I'm excited to see what E looks like.


This post was inspired by Bill Arnett's classic post, Analysis and Synthesis, which I've found hugely encouraging. Please read it. Bill Arnett would say that what looks like a plateau is actually a very gentle upward slope, so subtle that it's hard to notice while you're on it.

That’s it. A criminal oversimplification of something that is born from our souls. I’ve ascribed numbers to art, the most sacred and challenging, the most human, of all of our endeavors. I’m just playing my part in the history of western civilization, I guess.

- Bill Arnett

*It takes a conscious effort for me to say this. I default to "two-man show," even though I'm half the troupe and also a girl. 

**No it is not. 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. (edited version of previous comment)

    I'm having a similar experience with songwriting.

    For the first time in my life I've been trying to write a song a day. Also, I've been trying to pull myself out of my comfort zone by focusing on things that aren't my strengths--melody, conventional chord progressions--tricks I don't normally pull as a songwriter.

    The first few songs I wrote this way might be some of the worst things I've ever written. Since then, I've written a ton of songs that have been really helpful to write, because they get one thing really right--a cool chord progression or a really special melody. They're cool and I like them and they're exciting because they're different, but they're not as good as my best songs. I've worked harder and been more prolific than ever, but it's a plateau--it's been a long time since I've written something I'm really, truly proud of.

    What I HOPE is happening is that I'm learning new tricks that will become old hat to me, and they'll all come together in a string of songs that display my brilliant brilliantness.

    That's also an oversimplification. I edit and revise constantly, so my "plateau" songs may be slowly forged into pieces of brilliant brilliantness. Who knows.

    There's something about all this that seems unfair to improvisers. When I put a show together, I get to cherry-pick only my best work--nobody hears the plateau songs. So people think I'm awesome all the time! Improvisers don't get that luxury. The Flash Fiction you and Brendon performed for me in Brendon's basement is one of the coolest pieces of improv I've seen you or anyone do, and only the three of us got to see it. The piece you performed for an audience was--as you put it--not bad, but not as good as that.

    I guess that's part of the beauty of the genre, but it always frustrated me as an improv performer.