fear

Googling self-help (is how I do)

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?

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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?

Why perform?

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?

From anxietycoach.com:

…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.

Jimmy Carrane – A Bad Day Doesn’t Have to Mean Bad Improv

http://jimmycarrane.com/bad-day-doesnt-mean-bad-improv/

Trying to answer the problem of “well I’m in a shitty mood. Nothing is funny. I’m not funny. How the fuck do I get through this?”

 

Improvisers think they need be in a certain “positive” mood to do improv, and if they are not, they either don’t bother to show up to class or they ignore their feelings and paint a big latex smile on their faces and muscle through with that fake energy of a birthday party clown. Then when they have a bad improv class or a bad show, they end up beating themselves up or blaming it on their bad day.

What if we looked at those so-called negative emotions as a gift? And instead of trying to push them away, we were brave enough to acknowledge them by saying them out loud to a friend, the class or the group?

 


…Charlie McCrackin of The Reckoning… said if you are feeling sad or angry you might want to use them in character. Charlie e-mailed me later: “The only things I can add to my thoughts on emotions is that it’s easier to make use of the strong emotions already present in you than to try to build strong emotions from out of nowhere. Plus denying your actual emotions diminishes your ability to play truthfully.”

 

…just because I have a bad day does not mean I have to do bad improv at night. Instead, I can use those emotions to inspire my choices and deepen my connections with my partners to make me an even better improviser.

Successful actors freeze, too

http://www.backstage.com/news/study-shows-stage-fright-is-common-among-working-actors/

(From 2011: Study Shows Stage Fright is Common Among Working Actors)

84 percent [of 136 successful professional actors surveyed] reported experiencing stage fright at least once in their careers. [Goodman] described the condition as freezing or choking and said it is usually represented by a performance’s sudden collapse, rather than a gradual decline. Anxiety is particularly debilitating to actors, because fear of the future occurs in the same part of the brain where imagination lives, Goodman explained. He likened it to an overloaded computer: It will freeze if it has too many programs open while trying to process something complicated. “Imagination,” he said, “is a limited space.”

 

“All of a sudden I really got stage fright,” [Bailit] said. “I couldn’t figure it out, and I remember looking out, and everyone had a stunned look.” She almost walked off the stage, a move that would have haunted her career, she said. One thing kept her onstage. “I was frozen,” she said.

More-positive thoughts quickly took hold, she said, and she remembered her training: Concentrate on what you’re saying; get in the moment; connect with someone.

 

Experience and success are no guard against [stage fright]. Actors such as Meryl Streep, Ian Holm, and Barbra Streisand also suffered from it after they had established their careers.

 

(I froze in class this past week. Upside: I didn’t break the fourth wall like I usually do. Downside: I froze, what the FUCK, I should be past this by now, why am I not. Other downside: it was our first level 3 class, and I’m ALSO obsessing that my classmates all judged me. Great first impression, right?

So instead of wallowing in self-loathing, I’m trying to figure out: what went wrong? How can I prevent this from happening in the future? Can I prevent it from happening in the future? If I can’t, how can I manage the symptoms? If I can’t, is it a total waste of time to pursue a stage-based hobby?)

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.