High Pressure Performances

I’ve realized recently that I owe some of my former improv students an apology. For the past two years, I’ve taught an introductory long form improv class that ends with a grad show students perform for family and friends. Often my students would be nervous before these shows. I would downplay their fears telling them, “Don’t be nervous. Your friends and family are there to support you and cheer you on.” What I didn’t realize is this support itself is a source of anxiety.

I came to better understand the pressures my students face in the lead up to my recent performance at The Nestival in Columbus, Ohio. I’d applied to the festival with my improv partner, Chris, because performing in it would check off a lot of boxes: 1) it’d be our first Sarah & Chris show outside of Atlanta, 2) my family could drive up from Cincinnati to see it, 3) I could invite my Columbus based friends who haven’t seen me perform, and 4) I’d be able to check out the Nest Theatre, which I’d heard was a really cool improv theatre (it was!).

When we were accepted, I went into blind promo mode inviting my family and friends to the show. It was only after all these invites were out and Chris and I were prepping to travel that I realized what I’d done. Those same things that had attracted me to the festival were now huge sources of pressure on our 15 minute set: 1) Chris was traveling from Atlanta to be there, 2) all eight members of my Cincinnati based family were driving 100 miles to be there, 3) friends I hadn’t seen in five plus years were coming to the show and 4) we’d be performing in front of the improvisers who’d established this cool improv spot in Columbus as well as a lot of other awesome improvisers from around the country.

The pressure was on! Now, usually one of my favorite things about improv is that you can’t entirely prepare for it. As an anxious person, if I can prepare I will, and I often find myself dragged down emotionally trying to do everything possible in advance. In improv, you have to embrace the uncertainty of not knowing what you’re going to say or do on stage. Usually, this a relief, but in this situation it made me nervous.

I did what I could to ease my anxiety before the show. Chris and I practiced our format before we left town. I took a couple of workshops at the festival to get in the improv mindset. I made sure to get enough sleep and food before the show. I rehearsed what I was going to say in my introduction.

But backstage there was still uncertainty and the big looming questions. Would this set be funny? Would my friends feel embarrassed for me if it did not go well? Would my family take a poor performance as evidence of bad life choices on my part?

In improv, we often talk about following fear, but in this case, the fear followed me–right on stage to where I was presenting myself to an audience I imagined would vote on a referendum about my life right after the show. The likely verdict: “It’s a shame. She should have stuck it out in academia.”

The fear was there during my introduction. The fear was there at the top of the set when I worried I didn’t do enough to honor the audience suggestion in my opening line. The fear was there every time I went to initiate a new idea or “Yes, And” one of Chris’s ideas, encouraging me to play it safe instead.

The fear was there throughout, but there was a moment about 2-3 minutes into the set when I made my peace with the fear. This is something I’ve experienced in a few high pressure shows within the last year or so, and I think of it as my “f*#k it” moment. It’s not a magical moment where I hit the improv groove and escape my thoughts and just play–that would be lovely but it’s not what’s happening with my improv these days. Instead, it’s a moment where I accept that this is what this show is, however good or bad, and trust in my training to carry me through to the end.

I had my”f*#k it” moment and then made it through to the end. By audience accounts, it was a good show. I ultimately enjoyed myself and learned a lot about resisting the urge to play it safe in front of a high pressure audience. The experience has given me more empathy for my students. Going forward, I won’t downplay their grad show fears. I’ll give them the advice that I’ve given past students and that helped me on stage during my “f*#k it” moment–trust in your training.

I’ll also encourage my students to consider whose judgement they’re concerned about. For me, the day after the show I realized I didn’t need to worry about my family judging me. They weren’t driving 100 miles so they could tell me I’d made bad choices. They were there because they love and support me. I just wanted to feel worthy of that love and support.

If there was anyone ready to render judgement on the set, it was me. I wanted the set to prove to me that it makes sense that I’ve devoted the majority of my time the past five years to improv. That it makes sense as a career. That I’m worthy as a teacher and performer.

I’ll know this the next time I go into a high pressure improv show–that it’s my own expectations making me nervous. And hopefully this will help ease my anxiety. Because for me, having fun is one of the key ingredients to good improv, and it’s hard to have fun when you’re trying to justify the trajectory of your life with a fifteen minute set. That’s too much pressure to put on improv, which I’ll continue to love even if the performance doesn’t go well just like my family and friends will continue to love me even if I have a bad show.

1 Comment

  1. Very thoughtful appraisal! It is so seductive to fear judgement when we expose ourselves…..I admire your courage to overcome that. The show was vy good, clever. And you are right about the love…the quantity and quality of it would not change in response to an improv performance. Marie

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