Lately I’ve realized that a lot of really good improvisers shake onstage. I noticed a house-team guy do it once, and now I’ve started to specifically look for it. I don’t bring it up to be cruel; rather, it’s comforting to find out that I’m not alone in being scared as hell onstage, and comforting that you can still be amazing even if you are scared as hell.
Whether you’re brand new to improv or you’ve been performing for years, I want to remind you all of the Squirrel in the Garage: the thing that will awaken you to your imaginative side, or the reason you started improv in the first place.
The Squirrel is your sweet, very easily frightened creative self; the one that may not have come out since you were a child. Open, free, innocent, visceral, uninhibited. It is the beautiful creative soul that many people don’t know they have inside of them! (Yes, I believe we ALL have this.)
The Garage is your mind, and the garage door for most people is slammed shut most of the time. The door makes you feel safe, it protects you from humiliation, ridicule, and primarily, judgement. But we know that squirrels shouldn’t live in garages, they should be free, running up trees, across power lines, out in the world.
…Veteran improvisers still have that damn door slam shut and scare that squirrel back into the garage, sometimes for weeks. The difference is it happens much less than it used to. And there are times when the door is left wide open and that squirrel can come out and play, and to me, that is the sweet spot of improvisation.
There are sooooo many things I love about this article. Go read the whole thing.
…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 continue to have a lot of trouble with group scenes. So here are tips from a Real Improv Instructor on how to insert yourself into the group dialogue:
- Verbally agree with/ repeat what’s being said— “yeah, yeah, bandanas, right!”— Because then you’re immediately a participant in the scene, not an observer.
- Don’t be so polite! Give and take focus— If you do find a line, and you start to say it, and someone else talks over you, DON’T LET ‘EM if it’s not their turn. Also try to be conscious if you’re bulldozing the scene (‘cos that’s just as bad).
There may be more, but that’s all I can remember that Real Improv Instructor told us.
I went to a show last week where there were 6 people in the audience, including the director (who was taking notes).
In cases like this, I feel it is my duty to laugh as much as possible, because I am sympathetic to how nerve-wracking it is to perform for a tiny unresponsive crowd.
And as I sat there, giggling as much as I could honestly muster, I realized: part of what I love about watching improv is feeling like I’m a part of it, like I’m supporting the players, like my joy (and expression of it) is the fuel that lets them do their awesome thing.
It satisfies that craving to make the world a better place.
I’ve realized that I usually play better/more fearlessly with less experienced players— partly because less experienced players often go to crazytown, thus providing me with easy opportunities for honest reactions & calling out their contradictions— but largely because I can see that they’re more scared than I am.
SOMEONE’S got to drive the scene somewhere. And if it’s just the two of us on stage, and if it seems unlikely to be them, then I guess it’s gotta be me.
And so I actually pull my weight and support my scene partner.
When I play with equally/more experienced players, though, I’m the scared one, and I almost always make them lead. I hardly ever initiate, walk on, tag out. I “yes” whatever ideas they throw at me, but I struggle to “yes AND” to build the scene.
In my head, I’m supporting them by not fucking up whatever brilliant ideas they’re trying to accomplish. In reality, I’m only supporting by being another warm body on stage, which is maybe comforting but not particularly helpful.
(For this reason, I dream of doing a practice session [or two] where we agree that *I* have to initiate every scene I’m in. Even on days when I decide that I will force myself to do lots of initiations, my scene partner is quicker on the draw and always starts a scene before I’ve quite pieced together a coherent idea. Because this happens pretty much every time, I’ve given up trying. “Go on, partner,” I say, “what have you got? I got an emotion, and I’ll mirror you, but I got nothin’ to say. Initiate for me, I’ll wait.”
Ick. Talk about leaving someone out there.)
I was asked to do a small show last week with one of the Magnet veteran house teams. One of them had seen me do jams, apparently, and liked the cut of my jibe. I immediately agreed to it, because DUH. But I knew it wasn’t going to go great— I hadn’t done any long form in months, I hadn’t done this specific form EVER, the show was late at night and my brain was foggy… but most of all, I knew I’d be playing with veteran improvisers I admire, and I knew I’d play scared because of that.
Which is pretty much how it went down.
I’m not devastated, but I am annoyed at myself.
- I am good at supporting from the audience. This makes me feel good.
- I am pretty okay at supporting less experienced players onstage. This makes me feel pretty good.
- I am not good at supporting more experienced players onstage. This makes me feel bad.
The more experience I have, the more situations will statistically fall into categories #1 and #2, and fewer into #3, and I will therefore feel good a higher percentage of the time. Keep on truckin’.
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:
- Play like there’s no audience, like it’s just another no-pressure practice group session.
- 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.
- Remember that you want to be there!
Why do I want to be here?
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!)
For my pre-practice rituals (and I guess pre-show rituals, tho’ I haven’t had a show in a while), in addition to ½ cup coffee, 3-5 min of Mind Games on the train, and 3-5 min of Dada Monologue as I walk from the station to the studio, I’ve added “be funny for a few hours beforehand” to the list of things to help put my mind in a peak improv mood.
…Which sounds a little weird when I type it out, not gonna lie. I believe that trying to be funny is a recipe for automatically not being funny. More accurately, I am trying to let myself be funny. Permission granted, go ahead, do it.
Here’s the thing: one of the reasons I started getting into improv in the first place was to learn how to be funny without alcohol.
The reason I think it’s easier to be funny with alcohol is because alcohol allows my carefully constructed wall of social propriety to fall to the ground. More succinctly: lowered inhibitions.
And one of the things I’ve learned from doing improv is that it’s hard to be funny if you’re inhibited. Inhibitions = fear = not taking risks, avoiding bold moves, doing cautious improv = bad comedy.
And the inhibitions that stop me from being a goof in everyday conversations are pretty much the same inhibitions that make me freeze up when I improvise.
So: I’m trying to practice being a goof in everyday conversations. I do characters and voices, I break into small silly dances, I crack jokes without second-guessing how funny they are. (A lot of it is in the delivery, I’ve found. And shrugging off the failures. And having an appreciative audience. My coworkers, thankfully, chuckle politely anytime they identify a joke as a joke, which is enough for me.)
My point: in my estimation, as an anxious performer, learning to be loose and goofy in front of one person… is a precursor to learning to be loose and goofy in front of seven people… is a precursor for learning to be loose and goofy in front of a thousand people.
Can I maintain this playful persona all the time? Fuck no. I can’t force playfulness if I’m not feeling it, but— I guess in the school of CBT— I can focus on little concrete goals, like finding reasons to insert silly voices into my conversations. And over time, “silly voices” can lead to “silly” can lead to “less inhibited improv.”
My own probably-ignorant two-cent ramblings, as ever.
P.S. Text images are dumb! Don’t care, using them anyway, fuck you.
High on jet lag after a successful family reunion on the other side of the country, during which time I established myself as “one of the funny cousins” and remembered how good it feels to have people laugh at your jokes, I went to my first Del Close Marathon (#DCM16) on Friday night. After watching 7 groups of high quality improv, I’m starting to remember why I want to do this.
The best groups—in my estimation—look like they’re having fun. They are doing ridiculous exaggerated characters, and doing buttloads of physical silliness, and calling out everything illogical (which I love to do!).
I mean, that’s not all of it, of course. Part of what separates the wheat from the chaff (IMHO) is an extra helping of intelligence, wit, and fearlessness. And I have to face the reality that maybe I will never fully own those traits. But in the words of Rick Andrews’ Magnet podcast interview (~20:52):
“In Level 1, it’s ‘get over the fear,’ but it’s also like, ‘here are some tools,’ and you teach people character, and emotion, things like that. And they’re not tools just because, like, someone said they are. Like, the more I teach the class, the more it’s apparent to me that these are tools because they help us not think. Character and emotion helps you be in the moment and express yourself. They are ways to fight the fear. They are ways to kill that stuff so you can just follow your passion.”
“It’s just so much easier to follow passion than it is to follow…”
My point: I’m finding that briefly distancing myself (both physically and mentally) is providing a helpful viewpoint for seeing that any worthwhile pursuit of comedy comes from love, not from obligation and dread… and I’m making a liiiiitle bit of headway in finding that love, and losing that obligation and dread.
These are some links I’ve been reading lately, with improv in mind:
- Social anxiety disorder : I’ve never really felt like I have diagnosable social anxiety, per se, but it does a good job explaining how I feel before/after performances. And if it’s treatable, well hey, let’s look into that.
“[Social anxiety disorder] is sometimes referred to as an ‘illness of lost opportunities’ where ‘individuals make major life choices to accommodate their illness.‘”
“[They] experience dread over how they will be presented to others. They may feel overly self-conscious, pay high self-attention after the activity, or have high performance standards for themselves. According to the social psychology theory of self-presentation, a sufferer attempts to create a well-mannered impression towards others but believes he or she is unable to do so. Many times, prior to the potentially anxiety-provoking social situation, sufferers may deliberately review what could go wrong and how to deal with each unexpected case. After the event, they may have the perception that they performed unsatisfactorily. Consequently, they will review anything that may have possibly been abnormal or embarrassing. These thoughts do not simply terminate soon after the encounter, but may extend for weeks or longer.“
- The main solution Wikipedia offers is cognitive behavioral therapy. I started doing improv as an alternative to CBT. Improv is my CBT. Sooooo if anxiety is making me unable to partake in my therapy for anxiety, that’s a snake eating its tail kinda situation. What’s the solution? More improv? Real CBT?
- Mental Illness Happy Hour interview with Marc Maron :
What I realized about me is that I have anxiety–almost paralyzing anxiety and panic…. I would become overwhelmed by these possibilities that were bearing down on me, that were being generated by my mind through panic and fear, that I would become exhausted. And I would enter a paralysis. And that paralysis does not look that different than depression. – Marc Maron on not being bipolar, starting around 17:26
- Can I also take a moment to mention—the fact that this podcast exists, that it started as comedians interviewing comedians about all the ways they’re fucked up—is awesome.
So far, this is all just in the spirit of “huh, that’s interesting. And familiar. I wonder how I can take lessons from these things that have already happened to other people and apply them to my situation.”
My “situation” is that I am not deriving a lot of pleasure from improv at the moment, and I am unsure whether this is a surmountable issue or not.
Am I just generally anxious and depressed, and when that fades, will my enjoyment of improv be rekindled? Or am I done?
Am I consigned to being a mere watcher of improv?
Why do I want this? Is the high worth it? Do I even get a high?
Am I resistant to that kind of a high because— as an only child who is/was a self-centered attention whore (as all only children obviously are), who was self-aware that attention whoring was an undesirable trait, who consequently trained myself long ago to ignore that smug sparkle I feel when someone laughs to let me know I have succeeded in entertaining her– I ignore that joy instead of chasing it?
Comedy is hard. What’s my reward? Is it worth the pain? Is anything?
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?
I’ve read some examples of actors/comedians with performance anxiety issues. And I’m like, Okay, if they can do it, maybe I can too. But then I come to the stumbling block of Wait, if they can avoid these terrible feelings by NOT PERFORMING… why do they perform anyway?
…There are people with a passion for creative expression. In this group we find performing artists, musicians, singers, actors, comedians, professional speakers and athletes. None of them are immune to performance anxiety. If you belong to this group and develop stage fright, you face a dilemma which cannot be avoided. Your spirit urges you to seek out the audience, even as your body warns you to stand back, and you must choose.
Not the best-written piece in the history of the internet, but it’s something.
Does my “spirit urge [me] to seek out [an] audience?” I don’t think so, not in general. (Or I learned to resist that urge years ago.) Case in point, hardly anyone reads this blog (or my Twitter), because I don’t publicize it (or my Twitter), in part because I don’t feel like creative expression needs a spotlight and flashing marquee to do its job. I’ve got some old beliefs that seeking attention for your expressions cheapens the expressions somehow, like the high schooler who joins the chess club not because she gives a damn about chess, but because it’ll look good on her college application.
So I’m back to the original question: if you have performance anxiety, why would you pursue the stage?
Do you crave the positive attention of an audience, but you’re terrified of negative attention?
Is it that terror of bombing that fills you with adrenaline and makes you yearn to do it again?
Do you have a “passion for creative expression,” and the creativity simply must be expressed publicly on a stage, and you are powerless to resist?
Why do performers perform?
I feel like my failure to understand this is a big red flag telling me I shouldn’t perform. I dunno. I have a lot of thoughts right now, and I’m just jotting some of them down.