I got a phone call once from a gentleman interested in taking some acting classes. He’d seen one of my flyers somewhere and thought he’d call and find out what my angle was. Very nice guy. We chatted for a while, and eventually he got around to telling me a few of his experiences. He told me about a show he’d done recently where one of the actors drove him crazy. Seems he was always changing things, and you never knew what he was going to do next. “Was he changing the lines?” I asked. No, it wasn’t that. It was that he kept changing the way he was saying the lines, and sometimes what he was doing when he was saying the lines. And since you couldn’t depend on him to do what he was supposed to do, he was behaving unprofessionally.
I immediately knew which actor I’d prefer to watch, and it wasn’t the caller. Who wants to see an actor who plays it the same way every time? Who wants to see an actor who stubbornly insists on responding to what is supposed to happen rather than what actually is happening? Who want to see an actor play it safe?
I once worked with a very gifted improviser who would come off stage after a wonderfully funny scene inexplicably disappointed in himself. I’ve done variations of that scene a hundred times, he’d say. There was nothing new there. Now, the audience loved the scene. But he was disappointed with himself for leaning (settling for?) on ideas that still worked but that bored the hell out of him. Some people might accuse him of being incredibly self-absorbed, that it wasn’t about him, it was about the audience. I’ve heard that statement many times, and I’ve said it myself. But come on. Acting is not a selfless pursuit. Actors are artists, and the artist that isn’t stimulated by the work he’s doing is doing a grave disservice to his audience as well as himself.
From time to time I'll have students replay an exercise that we've done in a previous class. Sometimes a student will point out, "We've already done that exercise," as if I'd made a mistake or forgotten that we've done it before. I guess that some students find it odd that we're doing an exercise again. It makes me wonder: Do basketball players ever ask their coach, "Why am I practicing shooting free throws again? I did that yesterday." Or if members of a band ask their leader, "Why are we rehearsing that song again? We already practiced it once."
Maybe I'm weird, but I like trying exercises again. When I was a student I'd often have a lot more ideas about what to do once an exercise was over than I did when it started. By the time I'd "figured it out" it was over - never to be played again. A well chosen exercise teaches a skill that's important in improv. You can't expect to master that skill by trying it one time any more that you can master a hook shot by shooting a couple or learn the intro to Stairway To Heaven in fifteen minutes. In fact, the longer I studied improv the more I realized that my teachers weren't actually teaching me anything I hadn't heard before. What they were doing was reminding of stuff I knew but wasn't doing.
Improv is fun to do but only looks easy. The people who are good at it have put a lot of time into their craft. Much of that time is spent practicing fundamental skills over and over. So give that exercise a second try. If you "got it" the first time, try a different choice and see how that works. Or watch the other students and see what they do. I'll bet I've learned as much from fellow players than I did from the teachers.
Keep in mind that whenever you decide that you're good enough at something and stop working on it, that's probably as good as you're ever going to be. And I never want to feel like I'm good enough. I always want to get better.