Every now and then, I’m working with an actor or a student who has the experience of feeling completely exhausted, while trying to rehearse or perform an improvisation. (Naturally, I’ve had the same experience myself.) In an improvisation, you’re supposed to connect with the reality of what you’re feeling at each moment, and make that the basis of the scene, aren’t you? But what if what you are feeling is lifelessness and weakness? What if the scene is turning into a long, drawn-out, listlessly wandering exercise in tedium?

The first thing I do is to remind the actor (or myself) that they actually do have plenty of energy, they are just having trouble getting access to it. If a maddened criminal stepped into the room, waving around a gun or a hatchet, everyone present would suddenly be filled with a tremendous surge of energy, in their fear and their search for a way to save themselves. Therefore, the issue is not “I am out of energy.” Rather, the issue is “how can I remove the blocks to my energy, and regain access to it?”

The most common cause of a spiralling “energy crisis” during an improvisation is a confusion in the actor’s mind between, on the one hand, the energy of the scene, that is, the energy of their character and the flow of feelings-and-musicality which they are embodying along with the other actors, and, on the other hand, their own personal energy as a performer, that is, the energy which they are putting into the task of performing.

The energy of the scene can be anything at all. This energy does indeed consist of whatever you are feeling in the space at each moment. It could be ecstasy, boredom, paranoia, and, yes, it could be exhaustion, weakness, and lassitude. This is the energy that you are playing, and, in an improvisation, it should be whatever you discover yourself feeling in the moment, without any effort to fake it, manufacture it, or change it. If you find yourself feeling that the energy in the scene is one of weakness or tiredness, there is no need to try and change it into something more exciting for the audience, because you can play a scene about exhaustion and make it extremely funny, exciting, or moving to an audience.

On the other hand, your personal energy as the person who is doing the work of performing, should be very consistent. You’re working your butt off all the time. You are doing the work of opening yourself up to the flow of the scene, and of feeling the scene flow through you as it turns into words, actions, and silences. You are doing the work of constantly allowing yourself to feel the flow more and more fully. This takes a tremendous amount of concentration and energy at every moment.

Therefore, if you find yourself feeling that the energy of the scene is an energy of exhaustion or weakness, you are still working like crazy to feel that energy and turn it into a performance. You’re working like crazy to continually sense that energy of weakness, and to feel how it turns into words, actions, and silences. You are trying to open yourself up and feel it more and more fully. You are trying to feel how that energy is a part of the whole flow of energy in the space: the other actors, and the physical setting. And, of course, you are working hard at remaining aware of how that feeling of weakness is developing, changing, and evolving into the next thing.

Armed with the knowledge that you the performer are always working as hard as you can, even when the character you are playing is experiencing a total lack of energy, you will find that the sections of the scene which deal with exhaustion become some of the most compelling, exciting parts of the scene for the audience to watch.