Last month I finished the improv class I started at The Upfront Theatre. It was eight weeks of a lot of fun and quite a bit of nerves being wracked. Our teacher, Robin, delivered on the promise to make us feel uncomfortable. Well, I certainly felt that way several times.
I haven’t really performed since high school and even that was mostly skits in youth group. Then there was that one time David Moscrip and I did a skit for the high school academic meet. I forget what the skit was, but it was funny.
I’ve never had a strong desire to perform. I enjoy making people laugh and in everyday situations I feel really comfortable doing that, even if it means acting like a goofball. I’ve been known to do that once or twice. I’ve been told I have a quick wit. I might have gone into this improv class leaning on that idea a bit too much.
That doesn't mean I expected it to be easy. What I had not thought about was: it’s not really about being witty or funny. Having a good sense of humor is important, but it’s not one of the building blocks. Instead we learned to celebrate our mistakes and push through them; feel the beat of a scene; listen to our partners and accept the offers they make; and build scenes with our imaginations. None of the building blocks were about being funny, though plenty of hilarious moments happened.
One of the toughest times for me was when we began building scenes. For this exercise, a room was named and you had to mime something you’d do in that room. Then someone else in the class would enter the scene and say something that established what your relationship was to them and what was happening. At that point you responded, accepting what the other person said and building the start of a scene. It was no more than a few lines of dialogue and there was no goal of trying to be funny. Then the exercise would repeat, with the person that entered the previous scene given a new room and miming, until everyone had participated.
Even though it was week 3 or 4 and I was feeling comfortable-ish with the class, I was really nervous about performing like this. Everyone else seemed so at ease with their miming and their acting as they entered the scenes. I tried to come up with something I could walk into a scene and say, but nerves prevailed. After basically everyone had gone (ahem), Robin asked what our thoughts were about the exercise. Without missing a beat, Alana said, “I noticed gRegor didn’t go.” My palms were so clammy. I had all the same nerves as before, but now without the buffer of maybe someone else will enter this scene. I was the only one that would be entering the scene.
A new room was chosen — a morgue — and Emma started miming. She acted grossed out by a body and ended up throwing a bucket of something on it.
I came in with, “Is it your first day?”
“Yeah, are they always this… dead?”
“I’m afraid so. It’s a hazard of the job.”
(Pro-tip given to me: avoid entering with a question; it puts more weight back on the other person to build the scene. Use a statement instead, like “It must be your first day.”)
Then it was my turn to be given a new room and mime something. This made me the most nervous. I had to pause and finally say how nervous I felt about performing. I forget Robin’s exact words, but it was something along the lines of feeling that way meant I respected what we were doing together and wanted it to be good. In that moment I don’t know that it helped much, but I pushed through it and survived to tell the tale. In retrospect, it was good encouragement and I appreciate it.
Overall it was a good experience. My classmates were a fun bunch of hooligans. Robin was a great teacher. She clearly loves improv and was very encouraging to everyone. She will be teaching the 200-level class in January and several classmates are taking it. I was on the fence about it for a while, but ultimately decided to do it. I think it’s good to do things that make me uncomfortable sometimes.