Just Have Fun Out There

I performed in an improv show at a comedy festival in Greenville, SC last weekend that went so well I thought afterward I might make it my last.

The six people I played with were drawn from other Southeastern improv troupes, and together we formed a festival supergroup. The other improvisers varied in closeness to me from perfect stranger to loose acquaintance. We performed on a stage I’ve never considered mine and one I’ve never spent time managing. We got good laughs from the audience, and afterward, just enough people told me I was smart and funny.

It was an emotionally unencumbered high, and one that tempted me to walk away. Because I love creating with other people, but I hate wanting things from them. And when I’m in a group I find myself wanting things: commitment, shared vision, similar ambitions.

With the festival group, it was good time casual improv. Afterward there would be no one to miss or be disappointed with or regret leaving. As a result, during the show I was able to “just have fun out there” which is the advice that improv teachers and coaches always give their students and teams.

What comes next for me in improv has been weighing heavily on me during the last few shows I’ve done in Atlanta. I have another show in a couple weeks, and I’m going to try to channel my improv supergroup attitude and just have fun. Because that’s one of the lovely things about improv that can easily get lost.

Just Say No for Creatives

As an improv teacher and performer, I believe wholeheartedly in the power of Yes, And. However, having witnessed and suffered personally from the destructive power of too much Yes, today I’m taking a tip from the D.A.R.E. handbook and urging my fellow creatives–sometimes we’ve gotta Just Say No.

Before I delve into the reasoning behind my campaign for saying NoI want to state for the record that I think it’s important to say Yes a lot. Why’s that?

  • Saying yes pushes you out of your comfort zone. Beginning improvisers are encouraged to say Yes so they’ll support each other’s silly and wacky ideas rather than judging them. If your default mode is Yes, you’re going to accept challenges you might not otherwise be inclined to take on.
  • Saying yes helps you grow as a creative and make connections. Building a creative career takes hustle and determination. You need to work a lot at your craft, and many creative endeavors are collaborative. By saying yes, you gain experience and make connections with others that may prove fruitful down the line.

There are many benefits to saying Yes. Yes is powerful! However, problems arise when you say Yes too much:

  • By saying Yes too much, you’re effectively saying No. As people, we’re limited by our time and energy. It’s pretty simple math–if you say Yes to more projects than you have time to complete, you won’t be able to do things you’ve committed to well. Your Yes becomes a No.
  • Even if you can complete the work you’ve committed to, you might not enjoy the process if you’ve said Yes to too much. Remember why you’re saying Yes to creative projects–because you enjoy being creative. If you say Yes to too much, the process becomes a burden rather than an opportunity to do the thing you love.
  • You won’t have time to watch others say Yes if you’re always focused on your own Yes. Artists need audiences and a great way to develop as a creative is to watch and support others in their craft. Be there for other artists. Really be there!
  • You allow Yes to take the lead instead of focusing on what’s important to you and creating your own opportunities. Any quick scroll through social media will show you that about a million things are competing for our attention–shows, classes, the upcoming Spartan Race in Georgia (okay maybe that last one’s my feed). It can be seriously overwhelming. Not only do we not have time to say Yes to all of this, trying to to say yes to so many things creates a sense of fractured purpose. Ask yourself what matters to you and allow this answer to guide you in creating and finding opportunities rather than just letting opportunities find you.

There are a lot of compelling theoretical reasons for being selective with your Yes. But there’s a practical challenge to overcome: it can be really hard to say No (hence the D.A.R.E. campaign).

Why’s it so hard to say No as a creative? Because maybe this is the opportunity that will lead to your big break! And you can’t say No to your friends! What if you say No to this and no one ever asks you to do anything again? Your creative career will be over! Note that this logic is being driven from a place of fear rather than a place of enjoyment.

In reality, what to say yes and no to isn’t a perfect science–it’s a balancing act of time, desire, and opportunity. Practice saying No so you can really: (1) say Yes to completing and enjoying your work, (2) say Yes to your collaborators and honor your commitments to them, and (3) say Yes to other artists by witnessing their work.

Hustle. Work Hard. And sometimes Just Say No so you can truly say Yes. 

Keep the Comedy, Ditch the Self Loathing

I was reading through old journals yesterday prepping for a reading I’m going to be doing this weekend when I stumbled across this from January 24, 2011: “I’m excited to become a comedian because it is one profession where self loathing is an asset.”

Reading this rattled me for a couple of reasons. First, the timing of the writing. In 2011, I remember jotting down jokes on the bus to and from work, but I wasn’t actively pursuing comedy. I wrote this two years before I signed up for my first improv class, four years before I started doing comedy full time. Given the time lag, it almost seems like a prophecy.

The other thing that rattled me is that I disagree with the statement I made about self-loathing being an asset. Having worked in comedy and the arts for a few years, I no longer subscribe to the tortured artist myth–that is believing artists are self sabotaging, drunk, crazy people who’ve made bad life choices and should just get a real job.

Comedians and artists are people who’ve chosen to take an honest look at their life and the world around them and to relay those findings to others. This honesty can look like self loathing because we’re admitting we’re not perfect. We’re admitting we have flaws. But admitting you have flaws doesn’t mean you loathe yourself. In fact, it can be the first step to loving yourself more.

For me, when I finally signed up for an improv class, it was because I was drowning in a sea of unhappiness and wanted to reconnect with things that made me happy when I was younger. Admitting I was unhappy and trying to take action on it was a huge step in healing.

I see this with students in my improv classes. Some come to improv when they’re looking to make a change in their life. Some take improv classes to reawaken their creativity. Some are looking to have fun and connect with others. Seeking out comedy tends to come from a place of self improvement rather than self sabotage.

To do comedy at its most basic level, you have to be willing to stand in front of a group of people and believe what you’re about to say is important enough for them to listen to. You can do this and loathe yourself, but it’s probably going to be more fun for you and for the audience if you care about yourself and are confident in what you’re doing. Which doesn’t mean covering up flaws–the truth is what’s funny after all.

If I had to rephrase my statement from 2011 to reflect my current reality, it would go something like this: “I’m excited to be a comedian because it is a profession that allows me to be honest, connect with people, and entertain them. Comedy makes me happy.”

The scenes that never were

In my two years of teaching improv, the class I’ve taught most often is Intro to Long Form. In it, students learn to improvise scenes based off of true personal stories (a format referred to as Armando in improv circles). I love teaching this class because students get to know each other through sharing their stories and these stories provide jumping off points for super fun scenes.

There’s an exercise I use in class to work on generating scene ideas that I call Plates of Ideas. I have one student tell a true personal story and then the other students write down three ideas for scenes based on the story (each idea goes on a separate slip of paper). They then place these slips of paper on plates marked 1, 2, 3–the numbers corresponding to whether this was their 1st, 2nd, or 3rd idea. Then, one student will draw an idea from a plate and initiate a two person scene based on that idea. Much scrutinizing of handwriting and hilarity ensues as this process is repeated for a series of scenes based on the initial story.

There are a number of things I like about this exercise. 1) Writing down three ideas stretches the imagination, encouraging students to go beyond their first idea for scene starts based on the story. 2) Sometimes students will draw similar ideas for scene starts, but we’ll see the scene play out in different ways based on the choices the improvisers make. This is also a good opportunity to point out we don’t necessarily want to see three scenes in a row about toaster ovens in an improv set where somebody tells a story about a toaster oven. 3) Finally, initiating scenes based off of other’s written ideas gives students the opportunity to honor and build on their classmates’ suggestions. A willingness to support the ideas of others is one key to success in improv, and this exercise gives a taste of what that support feels like.

We never get through all of the ideas students have written down for scenes so at the end of the day I have a lot of little slips of paper left piled up on the plates. I love reading through these ideas after class and thinking about the scenes that never happened.

Part of the magic of improv comes from knowing at the end of a set you’ve just created something that will never be repeated because it was all made up on the spot.

Another part of the magic comes in the beginning of the set and during it when there are so many possibilities for what will happen next. Each moment in an improv set improvisers are making choices: to initiate a scene based on idea or not, to react one way versus another, to walk on in a scene or edit it, etc. Improv sets are determined both by what happens and what doesn’t happen on stage (action and non-action).

Improv scenes that do happen are an expression of idea made tangible for a brief moment in time. Ideas for improv scenes that never happen are either not expressed or bantered about in the green room afterward, e.g. “I had this great idea to play a piece of toast.”

The scene ideas on slips of paper left over at the end of my class represent an impossibly small fraction of all the improv scenes that never were (basically zero in a mathematical sense). Reading through them serves to remind me of one of the things I love most about improv–how full of possibility it is.

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Falling Forward in Improv

“Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” – Del Close

This is an improv note that I’ve been given in workshops and classes, and in turn, one that I’ve given to my students and teams. This past Sunday I had the opportunity to have the literal experience this quote describes. It was quite a rush!

My husband had the car for the weekend so I decided to run home after teaching my improv class–Atlantic Station to Decatur–about 10 miles. Around a mile into my run when I was on 17th Street in front of the Atlantic Station commercial district, I tripped and started falling. My body stayed in motion as I fell forward, a physics experiment gone awry: mass * acceleration = eating concrete.

My first thought was this is going to hurt. My second thought was this is going to be embarrassing because all the people around me are going to witness it. My third thought was don’t collide with anyone. My fourth thought was this is going to mess up my run dammit. My fifth thought was I hope I don’t sustain any long term injury. My sixth thought was how have I not hit the ground yet?

In my mind, I heard “Fall! Fall! Fall!” on repeat but my feet kept moving, hurtling me even faster into what I assumed was an inevitable tumble. I charged forward off balance, looking like I would fall over any moment for like a quarter of a block, but I never hit the ground.

When I finally recovered my balance, I kept running resisting the urge to throw my hands over my head Rocky Balboa style. I tried to make eye contact with the next few people I passed, but they avoided me–presumably because they didn’t want to embarrass me by acknowledging my ungraceful careen down the sidewalk.

I wasn’t embarrassed, though. Quite the opposite–I was proud I’d made it through the trip unscathed. Finally a guy I was passing did look at me and said, “that was really something.”

“Yes. It was amazing!” I told him.

It was a rush. Losing control. Running faster even though I was falling. Coming so close to hitting the ground but then pulling out of it.

Before this experience, whenever I heard the quote “fall, then figure out what to do on the way down” I’ve pictured someone jumping out a window or off a cliff. But an improv scene doesn’t go downward (one hopes). It moves forward. So my close encounter with the Atlantic Station sidewalk is perhaps a better visual representation.

Because the quote is not about falling and losing control completely, it’s about taking risks and figuring out what to do when you’re falling. Sure, sometimes you’ll hit the pavement. But other times you’ll be stunned by the brilliance of your mind (and body) to pull through challenging circumstances. The trick is not giving up even when hitting the ground seems imminent.

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.

I’m a Crab.

Improvisers often stand in circles and play games where we pass around energy. This can be done in a number of ways–by speaking, with eye contact, through movement, by changing places in the circle, etc. These games fuel connection, spontaneity, and a sense of fun and play.

I learned an awesome variant of this type of game last week at the Vancouver International Improv Festival from Matt Folliott, who directed the international ensemble I was part of at the festival. Standing in a circle, one improviser would start chanting “I’m a crab!” and make crab motions scuttling about the circle. The crab would then approach another improviser in the circle and that person could choose to change places with the crab by chanting “I’m a crab” or pass by crossing their arms and saying “I’m a bat.”

It was a silly, dumb, wonderful exercise that filled me with joy. Because standing in that circle with skilled improvisers from all over North America, I realized this is what it means for me to be a professional in my chosen field of work. My job is to play with people, to teach people to play, and to just let loose and be a crab!

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