A few weeks ago, as I was leaving a social gathering, my good friend since middle school (high school besties!) took me aside and shyly/excitedly mentioned that she was taking group music lessons, and she somehow ended up being the singer, and the group was performing in a bar in our hometown in a couple weeks, and, y’know, if I had time, maybe I could swing by?
“YES!” I screamed, surprising both of us. “YES holy fuck that’s AWESOME!!!!!!!”
This past week, I drove an hour to come see her, and it was amazing. All the student musicians had only first touched their instruments three months ago, and I was super impressed. But the part that made my heart explode— my introverted friend strutted onto that stage and fucking OWNED it, on pitch, rocking the fuck out. Were there a couple notes that weren’t quite what I remembered from the radio cuts, maybe. I didn’t care. I was grinning with glee the whole freaking time.
And I thought: I bet this is what it’s like for outsiders to come watch their friends do a Level 1 improv class show.
If I’d known, back when I was taking Level 1, that my beginner-level skills had the power to spark such joy for other people, I’d’ve told everyone.
I just hit my one-year-since-starting-Level-1 Improv-ersary last week.
And my brain said:
It’s been a year, and I’m still doing this.
Why am I still doing it?
I’m sort of convinced that everyone secretly hates me, and I’m working through some petty angry drama on my end right now, so the social thing isn’t a strong motivator these days, so… not that.
I didn’t suddenly get good at improv, so not that.
It still scares the bejeezus out of me, so not that.
Right now, I’m not taking classes, I’m not on a team, and I’m not organizing a practice group. I have zero obligation to commit time to improv, but I’m still carving out time for it.
Am I in this for real?
Have I proven that I’m not going to drop this the moment it gets hard to handle?
Am I an improviser yet?
I have told probably ~4 people outside of the improv community that I do improv. Word spreads anyway— “Wait, whoa, WHO said I was doing an improv thing last Friday? I never told HER I do this…!”— and photos/posts/links/event tags leak through Facebook, even if you hide stuff from your Timeline.
I’ve always been afraid that non-improvisers:
- Will judge me offstage, because I’m not the most hilarious person offstage.
- Will judge me onstage, because they’re expecting Whose Line and I’m Amateur Hour.
- Will constantly ask me “so how’s improv going?!”, and I’ll go through a rough patch where I don’t want to talk about it, or I’ll quit improv and everyone will keep asking “so how’s improv going?!”, and I’ll have to face a bunch of really awkward uncomfortable conversations.
Those are all still concerns. I’m not going to start broadcasting my improv life to the world anytime soon.
But with hitting the one-year mark, something in me was like: You can come out now. Maybe this IS just a phase for you. But it’s shaping up to be a long phase. And it’s been a part of your life for long enough. You shouldn’t have to hide it.
So. This little light of mine? Maybe it’s time to start creeping out from under this bushel.
My friend and I chatted after she sang her heart out in the bar.
“Some woman came up to me and said, ‘You looked like you were having fun!'” she said. “In other words, we sounded awful!”
“No no no no no no no!” I said. “Looking like you’re having fun onstage is half of it!”
She seemed skeptical.
“No, so, look, I’ve been doing improv— comedy— in New York for a year—” I blurted.
“Wait, WHAT?!” she said. “That’s awesome! How did I not know this?!”
“You didn’t know because I don’t tell anyone. I think you’re the fifth person I’ve told. I’m coming out, haha!”
She chuckled. I prattled on.
“In the improv that I’ve been watching, the best groups are the ones having the most fun, see. Skill is part of it, sure, but if YOU ain’t having fun, ain’t NOBODY having fun.”
That’s where I am right now. Stop hiding. Come out, have fun, shine bright. Only asshole snobs give a fuck whether your brightness comes from a $2 LED flashlight or a $4000 track lighting system. Bright is bright, and your brightness has the power to rock the world of everyone around you.
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!)
YOU: Do you enjoy improv?
ME: Uh. Workin’ on it!
YOU: Wait, what? If you don’t enjoy it, why are you doing it?
(A.) I tend not to like things I’m bad at.
(B.) I tend to be bad at things that are new to me.
Therefore, (C.) I tend not to like things that are new to me.
(D.) As a human, I tend not to do “optional” things I don’t like. (Things like taxes and caretaking aren’t “optional.”)
This all implies that (E.) I tend towards doing the same things, all the time, over and over, forever and ever.
(F.) Also as a human, I get bored doing the same things, all the time, over and over, forever and ever.
(G.) I am therefore faced with a choice between (1.) feeling bad because I tried something new and I’m unskilled at it, or (2.) feeling bad because I’m stuck in a boring inescapable rut.
I have weighed the options, and in this case, I believe that option (G1.) has better long-term implications. (I can’t justify this succinctly, but trust me, there is logic behind it.)
Besides which— if I continue with improv, simply by virtue of doing it for a while, I’ll HAVE to pick up a FEW skills along the way, which will hopefully make me less bad at it (see [A.]) and consequently increase my enjoyment.
YOU: …Wow, um, I was just making conversation.
ME: I know! You’re very good at it!