KJ2 - Learning - Failure is the only option


Notes from a Keith Johnstone retreat - August 8, 2009

I wanted to learn the unicycle, so I went out and bought one. After 15 minutes I gave up and put it away until a friend of mine told me it takes 6 hours to learn. So I tried again and learned to ride in 5 hours. (paraphrased from Keith's lecture)


He went on to tell us that in the first 15 minutes he was looking for improvements and that there are no improvements in 15 minutes work on a unicycle. The knowledge that it takes 6 hours means that no improvements in 15 minutes is no big deal, that things will pick up later. As it turned out this was the truth and it took  5 hours in reality in this case.

The same was true of drawing faces. Instead of setting out to draw 200 faces, he decided on 5000 faces. It took one year, one month, and three days to finish and therefore there was no frustration after the first 200 becuase there were 4800 left to do, so the expectations were low.

The trick is to let the audience see you fail and be happy about it.

Improv is creation in the moment in collaboration with other players, there is no risk of failure - there is certainty of it. Failure won't plague every scene but it is going to happen. Many of the games depend on failure because the audience wants to see you take risks and fail.

If you practice the question game until you have it down and can go for several minutes without making a mistake, there is no risk, and therefore no more game. It becomes a vehicle to show off your intelligence or how superior you are to the audience.

In learning improv, or anything, you need to fail. Most teachers and coaches prevent their students from having failures by trying to help them "get it right". They are robbing them of opportunities to reflect on their mistakes and gain experience.

As teachers, coaches, performers, or any other pursuit, we must accept the fact that we will also make mistakes, fail, and have opportunities to learn. It is still important to fail with good humor. As coaches we have an opportunity to model the very thing we are teaching.

You can't win every class as a teacher and you can't win every audience as a performer.

-Keith Johnstone, Aug 8, 2009

Failure Practice Exercise

Take any comic strip from a newspaper or website and remove the last panel. Now write 5 alternatives of your own. Keep trying with different strips and different days, there's plenty of practice. If you keep doing this for a month you will have generated lots of ideas. Who knows - one of them might succeed?