Photo by Leio McLaren on Unsplash

“Towards the end of that show, I started a scene waaaaay downstage
at the very lip of the stage–toes hanging over a very deep orchestra
pit. (That’s what I like to do if an audience might intimidate me: Walk
right up into their face … follow the fear.)”

-David Pasquesi, “Improvisation at the Speed of Life” 

The first time I read this quote I was on a plane flying to Chicago, coincidentally enough I would see TJ and Dave perform live for the first time on this trip.  I had to put the book down for a minute and process what I had just read.  This was one of the most simply profound pieces of advice I’ve ever read.  I know it might seem cliché but to just walk up and stare the fear down was eye opening to me, even after 7 years of doing this wonderful art-form.

I recently moved to Orlando, FL from San Antonio (that was a big fear in and of itself) and have been looking around at the improv community here in the City Beautiful since I got here in August.  I took a free Intro to Improv class at SAK Comedy Lab on Sunday and had the pleasure to meet Rob Ward, one of the instructors at SAK.  He spent a good amount of time talking about fear.  Fear of getting up in front of strangers, fear of looking stupid, fear of failure; all legitimate fears for sure, but fears that we must face in improv, and fears that make improv amazing.

Fear in improv is an astounding thing.  Embracing something that scares you in a scene will, more often than not, lead to some amazing moments.  We’ve all heard, at least I hope we have, “follow the fear”.  There is something so tantalizing about that phrase.  We are so wrapped up in our comforts.  We eat the same food all the time, watch the same type of movie, root for one football team…(actually, that one stays…Geaux Tigers).  We feel safe with those things, content.  But what if we went off the beaten path in our everyday lives?  In improv, those are the most interesting experiences.

When I play, I notice that I hold back more often than not.  I have seen my fellow improvisers go all in on character choice, scene choice, and many other choices that led to amazing scene work and hilarious situations, but I always notice that, even when I think I’m letting it all out, there is still a part of me that is holding back something.  Why?  Why do I do that?  Because I, for some reason, am still scared of what people will think of me.

I’ve done some weird shit on stage before.  I’ve been a Shakespearean princess, I’ve been a person with the characteristics of an alligator (death roll FTW), had (what I assume) was consensual space sex with aliens from another galaxy, and dressed as Cartman.  But there are still some things that I just didn’t go all in for, and that hurt my scene partners and the scene overall.  I’m a musician and music educator by trade, but I don’t like singing on stage.  I understand that sometimes it can be fun to hear someone do an accent badly, but I never played characters with accents.  I am a very physical improviser (I’ll fall, tumble, climb, etc), but I never initiated as a character with something physical about them (limp, eyes, something strange or different like that).  I didn’t do these even though I had SEEN THEM WORK IN PRACTICE!  It is something I knew, and disliked, about myself in my performance but I chose to not make these choices.

I have gotten a lot better about this over the last couple of years.  I’ve embraced the fear of sounding bad when I sing, I didn’t care if my accent was bad, so what if I had to spend the whole scene bouncing on one leg?  It was entertaining to the audience and, most important to me, it was FUN!  I began to have so much more fun in scenes when I decided to just go with it.  What do I care if I look stupid?  I’m already on stage in front of people, so why not have some fun with it?  I always left a scene feeling exhilarated and happy when I would do these!

Let me be clear here, it’s not easy.  Today is my 7 year anniversary of being an improviser (7 years today, first class ever at ColdTowne Theatre), and it took me until about last year until I was slightly comfortable (notice I said “slightly) doing these onstage.  I know some amazing performers that are still apprehensive about falling into something they are afraid of doing onstage, hell I’m still scared of a lot of things, but the reward for embracing that fear is immeasurable.

In TJ and Dave’s outstanding book Improvisation at the Speed of Life they have an entire chapter entitled “About Fear”.  It is a truly amazing read and was the impetus for my post today.  I am not going to attempt to summarize anything they say (and you should really buy the book if you don’t have it yet), but I just wanted to give some of my personal thoughts and experiences about fear.

My first show ever was my second week of taking Level 1 classes.  We had a show where students and teachers played together to get stage experience for the students.  I stood on the wings of the stage for the first 15 minutes of the 25 minute show in front of a crowd of about 30 people, and if you’ve ever been to ColdTowne Theatre in Austin, TX you know how small that area is.  I was scared. to. death.  Literally shaking on the wings, looking way to hard for a place to come in and overthinking everything I wanted to do.  I was probably not going to get on stage at all.  Thank God Emma Holder grabbed my arm and pulled me on stage.

I don’t remember a lot of improv scenes I’ve done, but I remember this one vividly.  It was some weird wedding scene where the chapel was infested with cats and I grabbed one and offered it instead of a ring.  The scene was terrible, absolutely terrible.  I didn’t listen, I was thinking ahead, etc.  I was petrified…but then I noticed something…Emma was going along with every asinine thing I was saying and making pure gol…well, pure cubic zirconia out of what I was doing.  It was amazing.  She was not going to let me fail, my biggest fear.  I was scared that I wasn’t going to get a single laugh from that decently large crowd, but it didn’t happen.  I only got one, but it was enough.  That little chuckle showed me what can happen when you dive in and do it.  I’ve had hundreds, maybe even thousands, of scenes since then.  Some really good, some ungodly bad.  But after all of them I still did it, and I still learned something from it and became a better performer because of it.

I’ve rambled enough but I do want to end with one more quote from the TJ and Dave book (it really is outstanding if you haven’t read it yet):

“The whole point of improvisation is to go out there with nothing
but one’s wits and whatever confidence the can summon.  Fear is
an understandable human reaction to the attempt to fulfill one’s
part of the contract with the audience.  Improvisers hold up their
end of the bargain by following what may be a less comfortable
path, walking onstage without a plan.  As a result, there is this
interesting relationship with fear, as it is a route to all
improvisational evils, while at the same time marking the way
to improvisational good”

-Improvisation at the Speed of Life

Embrace the fear, let it was over you.  Walk up to the stage and stare it down, then dive right in.  You will have a ton of fun, I promise.

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