The other day I heard someone give a pretty inspiring talk, and at the end of it he said, “The most important thing we can do is be present when we are with other people.”
I immediately thought of acting.
Today, it’s called mindfulness, and it’s being taught in schools, practiced in offices and become a buzzword you hear all the time on social media. The reason it’s so popular is because we have so many distractions — between technology, social media, multi-tasking and our constant on-the-go culture, it’s become harder and harder to stay focused on one thing at time.
Luckily, being mindful is something that we as actors and improvisers are trained to do. The audience actually rewards us for being present, by laughing and clapping, even though they might not even know it.
And the more mindful we can be in our acting and improv, the better we’ll be on stage. When we focus on being in the present, rather than thinking about all of the other things in our head, we can be better listeners, we can respond more authentically in the moment, and we can be more relaxed, which is the best state to be in on stage to access your creativity.
Often when beginning students take my Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 improv class, they’ll ask me what they can do in between classes to get better at improvising. And the short answer is to work on being more present in your everyday life.
When you are out with your friends, stop looking at your cell phone. When you’re home washing dishes in your apartment don’t try to multi-task — just do one thing at time. And the hardest, but most beneficial thing you can do is to slow the fuck down.
If you are constantly rushing from your job to a show or rehearsal without some down time to decompress from work or eat a healthy meal, you are not going to be very mindful on stage. You have to slow down long enough to let your mind be present.
Sure, you have to work on your craft by taking classes and doing shows, but don’t forget that in this art form, the most important thing to work on is yourself.
Here are three things that I have done to be more mindful in my acting and improv.
- Meditate on a regular basis
One of the biggest benefits of meditation is it can help you be more creative. Meditation was suggested to me for years, but it took me a long time to develop a consistent habit. For the last five or six years, I’ve been meditating every morning, typically for 15 to 20 minutes. Not only does it make my day run smoother, but it has also improved my listening skills, both in my life in my improvising.
On stage, when my scene partner says a line, I actually have more time to respond to what they just said to me. I feel I am improvising at a higher level and because of meditation, I suddenly seem to have more choices in the moment. Nothing is more exciting when I am improvising than when I have too many good ideas in my head and I am forced to keep making a choice about which way to go. It’s like the improv fork in the road — I can either take a right or left — and this happens more frequently when I meditate on a regular basis.
- Be less judgmental
If you are like me, you may be judgmental, which is not a great skill to have in improv and certainly not in life. When I am judging someone on stage or in life, it takes me out of the moment and blocks me from my true creativity.
People have told me over the years, “Just stop being judgmental,” which works about as well as telling your alcoholic Uncle Teddy to “just stop drinking.” For me, being judgmental is an addiction, and denying that just makes it harder to stop.
Lately, however, I have tried a new technique based on a Hawaiian healing method called Ho’oponopono that has actually been helping me let go of my judgmental thoughts. According to this philosophy, when a judgmental thought comes up, either while I’m improvising or in my life, I say “I love you” over and over again. As you read this you may think I am nuts. (If so, this would be a good time to use the “I love you” method over and over). In all seriousness, this practice has really worked for me and has helped both my improvising and teaching.
- Create a ritual
Another way to become more mindful is to create a ritual for yourself before your show, class or rehearsal. I have made up different rituals depending on the show I was in that helped ground me and make me more present. When I was doing “God Show,” I would walk around the block at Second City about 30 minutes before the show to get my energy up and to breathe fresh air. When I did my improv show “Summer Rental,” I would get quiet and do some physical stretches to get out of my head and into my body.
Today, before my shows and classes, I take a hot bath at home to relax. I also will be very mindful of what I do that day so I can take care of myself and limit my running around.
You don’t have to have an altar and use incense to create a ritual for yourself. It can be as simple as taking off an hour early from your day job on the night of your show and making a healthy meal instead of rushing to the theater after scarfing down a frozen pizza. Trust me, self-care will translate to your performance on stage.