dear diary

PHIT 201 – Class #1

I feel sticky.

I’m standing outside a closed green door in a hot windowless hallway in central Philadelphia, listening to voices on the other side of the door go through a three-line scene exercise, and skimming old class notes on my phone. I have done zero improv in three months. No shows, no books, no classes, no practices, no nothing.

I’m nervous and fidgety but strangely fearless.

I moved to Philly six months ago, and this is my first time in the local improv community. There are no expectations from anyone. I have nothing to prove, nothing to lose.

The first class goes off with minimal hitches. I’m definitely rusty, but it’s more like… my finer points have rusted off. I feel like I’m making generally good choices. There are lines where I blather on longer than I should. There are scenes where I get too emotional too quickly. There are scenes where my emotional state flip-flops, where I lose my commitment and forget things I’d said three lines earlier. But the basic instincts are still there.

The class seems a little shy and scared and low-energy. Nick Kanellis once mentioned that you can pump energy into a low-energy room by being loud (he meant a low-energy audience, but c’est la vie), so… I’m being my loudest and most energetic and most outgoing in hopes that it’ll rub off on everyone else. It’s a little exhausting, but that’s show biz, or something, right?

Here, apparently they do a montage for their 101 show, and it seems like there are no beats, just a sequence of scenes. I’m not sure how the scenes are supposed to be interrelated yet. (Guess I need to go watch a 101 show!) But that’s what we do instead of warm-up scenes.

We warmed up with Pass the Face, and a dance-in-the-middle game, and Loserball. We worked on our initiation ideas with A-to-C-ing, and we played New Choice to address specificity and bad habits, and we did some montages. And a variation on crazy eights, which I NAILED [preen preen].

I don’t feel out of place. I don’t feel way ahead of anyone, and I don’t feel way behind. There are some really strong talents in my class, and I’m excited to play with them more in coming weeks.

Yay! The improv-shaped hole in my heart is being refilled!

Failing greatness

WARNING: Not so comedic. Some discussion of suicide. (1) I’m not suicidal right now, don’t worry about me. (2) If you think it might be a trigger for you, or generally uncomfortable, you might want to skip this one.

 

———-

Prelude: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about laziness and depression.

I’m not depressed (probably?). I am lazy and insecure with self-confidence issues.

And I’ve been waffling about hitting the “publish” button on this for a couple weeks. Why do I need to be so open? Is it a cry for attention? Does it belong on this blog? Does it belong anywhere?

…Fuck it, let’s go.

 

———-

Two things I encountered yesterday morning:

  1. A quote from Amy Poehler, as illustrated by Zen Pencils: “Great people do things before they’re ready.”
  2. A quote from Stephen Thompson, towards the end of this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour (31:13): “People who achieve greatness in all sorts of capacities are obsessive people.”

Neither of those refers to me.

I think it’s normal to see people we really admire (“great”) and analyze: what exactly makes those great people so great? What separates them from the riff-raff? What can I do to put myself on the right side of that threshold? —which is why these kinds of quotes are so prevalent, and why I assume so many people find them motivational.

My gut translation of quotes like that is: “Worthwhile humans have XYZ trait, but you don’t have XYZ trait, therefore you are worthless. Just give up. There’s no point.”

 

———-

Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal does a lot of comics about what he calls “the Blerch.” [link] [link] [link]

I haven’t been getting anything done lately. My Blerch is winning.

It’s always been a battle for me, as I assume it is for most people. (Why else would Inman’s Blerch comics be so popular, right?)

Do most people plan their whole lives around the assumption that they won’t do anything unless they have to do it? ‘Cos I do.

 

It’s why I have a rigorous schedule for improv (when I’m in it; I’m falling out right now [see “Blerch” above]): classes on Mondays, practice group on Fridays, show-watching on Wednesdays.

It’s why I know exactly what days I’m going to run a month in advance— it’s on the schedule, so I have to do it.

It’s why I don’t cook or clean— Nobody’s making me do it, so I don’t.

It’s why I participate in community bands— I know I won’t do any music on my own.

It’s why I won’t freelance— I know I’d be late on deadlines and have no repeat clients.

 

Laziness/Blerchness is the commonest and most shameful thing in our western culture.

Severe depression is its own thing that I have no frame of reference for, but I wonder: what’s the functional difference between severe laziness and mild depression?

 

(Side note on how to combat laziness: Here’s a link I found that suggests breaking the thing you’re avoiding into smaller goals.)

———-

Robin Williams committed suicide on Monday (8/11/14). (He was one of the contributing influences to this “Robin Cartwright” pseudonym I use.)

When the news broke, everyone cried, “I loved [that movie he did 20 years ago]!”

I have no idea what Williams was going through. But if it were me, and nobody had anything good to say about any work I’d done since c.1997, I don’t think I’d be handling it very well, myself, emotionally.

…..

One thing that’s come out of this is that people are talking openly and non-judgmentally about mental illness.

I haven’t seen the line “suicide is selfish” this time around*, which is refreshing. (That line never made sense to me; when I’ve considered suicide, it always felt altruistic, because OBVIOUSLY the world would be a better place without me in it.)

*Ed. The “selfish” thing started coming up later. Dammit.

What I have seen is a lot of “mental illness is a real illness; if you are ill, get help.” Which… it’s more complicated than that, innit?

…..

John William Keedy did a series of photographs about anxiety, and got interviewed by NPR.

There’s a stigma that goes with having a mental illness. It comes with this idea of weakness of will. Which is weird, because if somebody had a broken arm you’d never tell them to will their way out of it.

Here’s the thing: with a broken arm, it’s either broken, or it isn’t. You look at an X-ray, and you know.

With mental illness, there is a whole continuum, and it’s pretty fuzzy. Sometimes you feel shitty and it’s “normal”; sometimes you feel shitty and it’s “abnormal.” Drawing a precise line between “normal” and “abnormal” is incredibly unclear, and has been debated among trained psychiatrists for years, and that precise line shifts from year to year, from DSM to DSM, from one psychiatrist’s subjective opinion to another’s.

I self-diagnose myself as “subclinical pretty much everything.” I show some signs of dysthymia, bipolar II, PMDD, SAD, anxiety, agoraphobia, avoidant personality disorder, etc… but I can leave my apartment in the morning and hold a job, and I am therefore “functional” and not truly “ill,” so it’s hard to justify the time/cost/effort of seeking help.

…And by the time I get to seriously considering suicide, I’m just SURE that I’m fine, and suicide just seems LOGICAL.

Argh.

 

—–

I don’t really have a point, I just wanted to vent.

 

In closing, here are some better and more articulate thoughts about depression to read, if you haven’t seen them yet:

  1. David Foster Wallace writes about his depression (1984)
  2. Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half writes about her depression – Part 1 (2011)Prelude, and Part 2 (2013)

 

Introversion + Too many people in this scene

I’m an introvert. Whenever I take Meyers-Briggs tests, I’m wayyyyyyyyyy over on the introvert side of the spectrum.

A defining characteristic of introversion is that we’re quiet and reserved in large groups. We are most comfortable by ourselves, or talking to someone one-on-one, maybe two. Not a crowd.

I bring this up because I find that I prefer doing improv with just one scene partner, and I get progressively more freaked out the more people I have to play with at once.

Monoscenes, by definition, require interacting with a large group of people at once, which I’m starting to think automatically sets off my introversion/ social anxiety/ agoraphobia/ fear, and renders me useless for improv.

 

…..

I was involved (I still am, kind of sort of? I haven’t officially quit) with an indie team that did variations on monoscenes. I was never really into the form, but everyone else seemed to be, so I went along with it. I hoped that I was just inexperienced, that I’d grow to love the form with time. Hasn’t happened.

Those same teammates have commented that it’s really hard to do a good Harold. No argument from me— all long-form improv is really hard. But to my mind, Harolds— or any forms built from straight-up two-person scenework— seem more straightforward to pull off.

I want to improvise laid-back explorations of two-person relationships. I like those in real life, and I like the idea of improvising make-believe versions of them. No pressure. No crowds. Just you and me having a moment together.

I dunno. Improv is hard enough on its own, so why make it even harder?

 

I do believe that if you’re still mostly failing in the practice room, it’s prudent to be patient and keep it behind closed doors until you’re nailing a slightly higher success rate…. I also believe you can get comfortable being on stage by doing stuff that you have a high probability of succeeding at. Sufficient preparation allows you to build skills, and utilizing those skills drives your success.

(Did I just quote myself? Yeah. Yeah, I did. #arrogance)

Some long forms are more difficult than others. When I get bored of the easier ones, then yes, I’ll move on to something trickier. But I see no reason to jump into something I’m unlikely to succeed at before I’ve mastered some forms that I might actually be able to pull off.

And I’d be more likely to succeed because…

“It’s just so much easier to follow passion than it is to follow…”
“…an obligation.”

(Rick & Lewis)

 

Overcoming fear: I want to be here

For the past few weeks, I’ve been getting deeper into my current improv philosophy of “just have fun.” Am I making a lot of dumb Level 1 mistakes because I’m not panicking and weighing the pros and cons of every decision? Sure.

But honestly, if the Bill Arnett improvement graph is at all accurate, then I was already doing some of my best work in Level 1, and my current bad scenes are generally better than my Level 1 bad scenes, simply because I’ve been doing this for nearly a year now and those “better decisions” can just sort of happen now, sometimes, if I can just LET them. And I can let them happen if I can just be less afraid.

 

Why am I so afraid?

  • Because people I respect will judge my performance negatively, and they will lose respect for me.
  • Because I will ruin everything for my brilliant teammates if I make one stupid move, and every move I make has the potential to be stupid.
  • Because performances feel like opportunities to show off how shitty I am, the whole idea of which makes me cringe.

 

Are these fears valid?

  • No, people won’t lose respect for you. Sometimes you do shitty improv. It’s okay. If people hate you/ pity you after one bad show, then they don’t understand improv, so fuck them, who put those dickfaces in charge of your life?
  • No, you won’t ruin everything. No mistakes in improv. You may make a choice that makes the scene harder to play, but your teammates are good improvisers, and they can take your choice and make it sing. Mick Napier asserts that the best way to support your scene partners is to make bold choices, so gift the fuck out of your teammates and stop worrying that it’s dumb.
  • …I actually kind of agree with the last one, though. You yourself aren’t shitty. But yeah, I do believe that if you’re still mostly failing in the practice room, it’s prudent to be patient and keep it behind closed doors until you’re nailing a slightly higher success rate. I think this is at odds with the popular majority, and I do agree that actively avoiding stage time will feed your phobias. But I also believe you can get comfortable being on stage by doing stuff that you have a high probability of succeeding at. Sufficient preparation allows you to build skills, and utilizing those skills drives your success.But feeling like all performances are a venue for your shittiness? Dude. With class shows (for example), you’ve spent eight whole weeks building the skills necessary to perform the form! You’re prepared! Chill out!

 

How can I stop being so afraid?

Right now, my anti-fear tactics are:

  1. Play like there’s no audience, like it’s just another no-pressure practice group session.
  2. Don’t spend the time leading up to a show thinking about the show, even if you’re focusing on positive affirmations. One of my teammates once said “being in your head with overwhelming positivity is still being in your head.” (Plus— affirmations don’t even work unless you’re already confident, don’t waste your time.) Go for a walk, give attention to each of your five senses, practice basic mindfulness. Being in your head = worry = fear = weak improv.
  3. Remember that you want to be there!

 

Why do I want to be here?

Because this is FUN. Because I love being silly.

The shows I most enjoy watching are the shows where it looks like the improvisers are having fun. If ME having fun leads to a better show for the AUDIENCE, well duh, my work is cut out for me.

 

(As ever, this is all just rambling personal opinions that I’ve already stated in previous blog posts, just repackaged. My apologies for redundancy!)

Polishing your diamonds

CC, Parent Géry, Wikimedia Commons

I keep thinking about something I read in The Boiling Point a while back.

 Your weaknesses never really go away. …when you have more reps, you’re able to lessen the effects.  I believe your weak spots will always be weak, but there are degrees of weakness.  With a ton of rust, your trouble spots just feel much larger.  With practice, you can manage their symptoms.

In other words, everything you’re bad at now, you will always be bad at, sorry.

…..

I think we all come into improv as big chunks of ore with little diamonds in our rough– little talents that were already there to start with. And with training, we can extract and polish all those diamonds into exquisite gems. But when we don’t already have a specific diamond there in the rough beginning, we can’t just make it appear. We can distract from the missing diamonds by showing off our polished gems, or we can throw some of our non-precious ore into a rock tumbler and show that off too, but we can’t polish a diamond that was never there.

Wikimedia commons, CC, 88pathoffroad

Tumbled worthlessness = very pretty worthlessness

Almost since I started improv, I’ve focused on polishing my non-precious ore, because frankly, any improviser should. I don’t want to rely on crutches and bad habits.

cristal de diamant sur conglomérat - crystal of diamond in conglomerate

But it’s so frustrating– no matter how hard I polish, all the ore is still rough and worthless. Worthless, everything I have is fucking worthless.

And then I remembered that I DO have some diamonds.

So right now, I’m trying to spend some time polishing the little diamonds I’ve been neglecting, and take some time away from the ore.

Is this something I would recommend? No. It’s a crutch. A bad habit.

But don’t forget about your diamonds.
Diamonds

 

 

All images used here are released under a Creative Commons license and link back to their source.

And please note: Everything stated here is just my own dumb opinion.

Duality

When I was in high school, before social media existed, my friends and I would fill out silly little surveys (“favorite color,” “number of pets,” “weirdest friend,” “funniest friend”) and email them around to each other. In one survey, one friend pegged me as the “most outgoing” person she knew, and another friend named me as the “shyest” person she knew. It contributed to years of existential identity confusion. (“Am I outgoing? Am I shy? I can’t be both! I kind of am, though!”)

…..

Lately I’ve been reading about social anxiety and comedians. A study from 2009 noted that a lot of (stand-up) comedians are introverts, which surprised the researchers, because what’s more traditionally extroverted than a someone who wants to be loud and funny in a spotlight?

The study speculates:

Perhaps comedians use their performance to disguise who they are in their daily life. Comedians may portray someone they want to be, or perhaps their act is a way to defy the constraints imposed on their everyday events and interactions with others. Further study needs to be done to clarify the apparent contradiction between their true personality and on stage persona that they choose to present.

In short, comedians are (often) extroverts on stage but introverts in real life.

…..

Like most people, I have a public persona and a private persona.

The public persona, fueled by adrenaline rushes (like the thrill of meeting people for the first time), is loud and funny and charming and enthusiastic and likable. Maybe a little annoying, but it feels great to wear her. Unfortunately, it takes a shitload of energy to maintain her, which I do not have, so she’s unsustainable for any length of time.

The private persona is an asshole. I hate her. Probably everyone else does too. So I try to hide her from public eyes as much as possible, which means if I don’t have the energy to be Miss Outgoing, I tend to withdraw from society.

I start most relationships as Miss Outgoing, and then gradually slide down into Withdrawn Asshole.

I don’t tend to hold on to friends very long, because the more time we spend together, the more withdrawn I get, as the rush of novelty fades and I lapse back into being my own private shut-down asshole self.

…..

I quoted a Jimmy Carrane piece last month, that “Improvisers think they need be in a certain ‘positive’ mood to do improv” (oh good, I’m not alone feeling like this) and offered suggestions to take your negative emotions and turn them into improv.

The problem is— or one of the problems is— that I’m burning out. It feels like less of an emotion thing and more of an energy thing. I no longer have the energy to be Miss Outgoing, and Withdrawn Asshole is screaming I don’t want to be here, why am I here, I want to be at home, alone, watching TV, or quietly staring at a wall, or doing anything but interacting with people here and now! How do you play that? Apathy and “I don’t want to be here” are THE WORST in improv.

…..

I get my adrenaline rushes from novelty, from new excitement, from the thrill of the honeymoon period, from the joy of having the means to be Miss Outgoing for a while.

But my honeymoon with improv is over.

So the question is: do improv and I have what it takes to maintain a mature, fulfilling, and mutually beneficial relationship? I don’t know.

I think taking a break from improv— or at least not doing it 4+ nights a week when I don’t live nearby— is a reasonable solution. People take time off, that is a legitimate thing!

I dunno. I like it when improv and I can just be playful, and I just can’t seem to find that right now. Improv, baby, c’mon, where’s the love?

Fuck strong

I’ve gotta stop thinking of the word “strong” as aggressive and high status. I keep blasting in with loud, in-your-face characters because that’s what a “strong character” or “strong initiation” is in my head.

And it isn’t, not always, it’s not what “strong” means! A terrified low-status character can be way stronger than a loudmouthed crazy character!

Therefore, from now on, to avoid associating “strong” improvising with high status aggression, I will call it “juicy.”

“That was a real juicy initiation, good job!”

“You had a nice juicy emotional reaction to that first line.”

“Have a juicy character in the first beat.”

“We’re all working to be juicier improvisers.”

FUCK STRONG.

Stop fighting!

An observation about one of the many improv things I struggle with— If you come at me with an accusation, I will always, always fight.

I mean, I’ll accept the reality of the situation, that I did the thing you’re accusing me of, but I’ll be damned if you’re gonna tell me that’s WRONG. I had a TOTALLY valid reason for crashing that commercial jet, and fuck you for saying otherwise.

The problem is: fights rarely make good improv. The scene never goes anywhere– no new information gets added to the scene, you just dive deeper and deeper into the dumb little factoids you started with. It becomes about the facts (which are MADE UP! how can you strive win a fight based on make-believe facts?!) instead of about the relationship between the characters.

The problems for me, why I have so much trouble not fighting, are:

  1. I wouldn’t say I like arguing, but… uh, I like being right. So I’m usually having so much… fun?… trying to one-up my opponent that I don’t even realize I’m doing a terrible scene until like 2 minutes after it ends.
  2. It’s my honest reaction. That’s honestly how I’d handle an accusation in reality. And you’re supposed to react honestly, right?

I’ve got a short fuse. I never thought I’d be able to hold a job as long as I have; I always envisioned myself telling a boss to go fuck himself and quitting/getting fired in a spectacular tantrum. (I’ve come close! Oh did my manager and I have a talk last week. But I digress.)

Lately, I’ve had some opportunities to get screamingly rageful in scenes, and that usually goes over well because “strong emotion” and all, but I’m just like, wince, guys, I have anger issues, please don’t validate them.

Back to the point: ideally, I guess you avoid confrontational initiations, but once it’s out there… maybe I need to learn to just… accept that I was wrong, that I’m the lower status character here. At least sometimes.

Is there a way to do this without being either (a) remorseful (“I’m so sorry, I’m a terrible person for crashing that jet”) or (b) incompetent/clueless (“You’re not s’posed to shut off the engines in flight? Golly, I didn’t know that!”)? Or is one of those two options how you’re supposed to navigate the situation?

Or should I hold on to my “fuck you, I’m right” point of view (thus maintaining the “honest reaction” thing), but steer the conversation away from the subject we’re fighting about?

…I have no idea how to do that, though (in improv or reality).

So how do you handle accusations (in improv or reality)?

 

 

(Oh hey, also, this is my 69th post, hurr hurr hurrrrr.)

Safe environments

I’ve been thinking a lot about improvising in a safe/unsafe environment.

What makes an environment feel unsafe?
High stakes— if you mess up, you fuck it up for everyone. There’s a FORM, and you need to do it RIGHT.
The show matters— when you are performing for an audience that is expecting you to be good– or practicing with that event in mind– there can be a constant looming fear of failing to meet expectations, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy after some rough practices.

What makes an environment feel safe?
Low stakes — if you mess up, it’s no big deal.
The show doesn’t really matter— The audience for an improv class show is not expecting professional-level comedy, and if the students don’t deliver… they’re still learning, they’re giving it a go, good for them!

What are the consequences of playing in an unsafe environment?
Lack of safety breeds fear.
Sometimes fear gives people an adrenaline kick that shifts their brains into overdrive, allowing them to be the very smartest improvisers they can be.
Sometimes fear is liquid nitrogen that freezes people’s brains. And it’s really hard to do competent improv, let alone good improv, when your brain can’t function.

What are the effects of playing in a safe environment?
Because messing up doesn’t matter, your brain can be released from its vice grip of fear and just do its thing.
Or, for some people, this might mean getting lazy– oh, it doesn’t matter, who cares, whatever.

…..

I bring this up because I have two back to back nights of improv, and I go home with totally different worldviews from each.

Team practice makes me question why I ever thought I could do improv. I keep screwing up, and it matters, because we have SHOWS booked. The team will fail, and it will be my fault. If I can’t master basic tenets of improv, well, maybe I just shouldn’t be doing it. Everyone would obviously be better off without me around to fuck them up.

Class, even when I fuck up, puts me in a good mood. Improv is fun! We’re all just playing with each other! Oh, whoops, I had a weak character, well, I’ll do better next time, no problemo. “No mistakes in improv” is a legit attitude.

So what does that mean? Should I never perform? Is there a way to lower the stakes of a performance? Is it just a matter of doing the form a lot until it’s ingrained in your brain, like other improv fundamentals? How do you cope in the meantime?

Argh.

 

…..

 

Edit: I drafted this post in early April, then dropped out of the improv blogosphere for a month, then revisited it when I drifted back in. During that time, Will Hines addressed pretty much the exact same question on his blog. His answer: you just gotta beat it. Reps, bravery.