Guest post on People and Chairs: The Squirrel in the Garage
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.
Quick public service announcement:
I’ve been looking for a (free) podcast of various comedians’ stand-up routines for a while. I found one: Put Your Hands Together. It’s live weekly standup recorded at UCB-LA. There are big names, medium names, names I don’t recognize. It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for, and I hope maybe you will like it too.
You may not feel like your scenes are getting better but your poor work is slipping away. That plateau you’re on that frustrates you after class is actually a slope. And while the climb may feel like inches a day, the ground is rising to meet you by several feet a day.
To put it another way: your bad scenes improve sooner than your good scenes do. Becoming a better improviser means tightening the gap between your best and worst work & becoming more consistent, which natually happens over time (years), mostly by doing less godawful work. Chill out and keep on truckin’.
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?
I did not know that the L.A. Laugh Factory had an in-house therapist. It’s an obvious and elegant solution, when you think about it.
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.
(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?)
I laugh so hard all the time because I’m surrounded by the funniest people in the world. I get those really deep laughs that hurt your stomach and make your eyes tear up at least once a month when I used to get that maybe once a year.
– Lance Gilstrap, as interviewed by of Andrew Buck of Yes And(rew)
“I am thinking of printing this out onto cards and giving to improvisers when they say, ‘I can’t think of any other emotions beyond happy, sad or angry.'”
via Montreal Improv Blog
Will Hines did an interview with Splitsider in December. I don’t remember why I didn’t immediately post a link here. But now it’s been a couple months, and a line from the article stuck with me:
The most talented people I’ve seen along the way gave up and stopped. So a lot of those people go away if you wait. You’re intimidated by these people who are better than you but will probably be gone if you wait a year, two years.
I come back to this whenever I’m all “I’m terrible, I should just give up” (which is often). (Emotional dysfunction in comedy, what? Whole nother essay, stay tuned.)
Also: Hines too took his first improv class on a whim when he was 29! There’s hope for me yet.