If you spend more than twenty minutes around a group of improvisers, chances are one of them is going to lament "All of my plaid shirts are dirty. Oh, and I'm really stuck in my head." If you're an improviser I don't need to explain what this means. If you're not, thanks for reading. Being "in your head" means that you are consciously processing what is happening on stage. Most improvisers associate being "in your head" as a bad thing. But most of the time it really isn't. And yes, that picture is amazing.
First of all, every improviser on the planet has been stuck in his or her head. It isn't only happening to you. Second, and most importantly, being stuck in your head, especially for beginning improvisers, is actually a signal that you are getting better at improv. It means you are paying attention to the rules/strategies/philosophies/whatever you want to call them that improvisers do onstage and trying to apply them yourself. It means that you are paying attention and getting better. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that most improvisers want to get better at improv. The whole goal of training is that you practice enough and improvise enough so you get to the point where you don't have to think about rules/strategies/philosophies/whatever you want to call them that improvisers do onstage because those things will become second nature. You don't think about the component parts of driving a car or knitting a sweater (because all improvisers knit), you just do it. Was that always the case? No. Fifteen year old you was highly aware of every single movement, gear, switch, noise, etc. in your Ford Taurus SHO.
Experienced improvisers go through these patches too. And you know what, even if they call them ruts, they usually come out on the other end a better improviser. There is a lot to think about on stage, and you simply won't always be in a transcendent space where you simply listen and react and always just instinctually do the right thing. It's a good thing to be thinking about the scene you are in or the scene you are watching from the back line. It's a good thing to be making mental notes and connections, to be on the lookout for your partner's scenic moves. It's a good thing when you are consciously trying to add to the scene, or push your partner's emotional point of view, or play the game of the scene, or simply stop for a moment and think "why did my partner say that line? What is she trying to accomplish? What's the best response?"
It's not such a good thing when you become paralyzed and stop playing.
Being stuck in your head is a problem when the things you are thinking about stop you from improvising. "I'm not getting any laughs," or "Why isn't the audience laughing?" or "That was a funny connection, wasn't it? Nobody's laughing." These in your head moments aren't helpful. The bad "stuck in your head" is usually just your lack of confidence rearing its head. It can keep you out of scenes, both literally and figuratively. It can keep you from connecting with the moment because you are worried about doing "the right thing." It can keep you perpetually stuck on the back line. This kind of stuck in your head is a bad thing. So here's some advice to get out of this mindset:
So stop worrying about being stuck in your head. There is no one way to journey through improv. Some things will be easy and some will be hard...and then the easy thing will be hard and the hard thing will be easy. You will experience moments of complete playfulness and euphoria. And you will experience other moments that don't quite live up to those. Remember that being stuck in your head is a part of the process and that you usually emerge as a better improviser.
Matt Fotis is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Albright College. He is the author of Long Form Improvisation and American Comedy - The Harold, The Comedy Improv Handbook, and "My Fragile Family Tree: Stories of Fathers & Sons."