This I Believe
By Laura Wexler
My first night of improv class began with a simple warm-up exercise. “Get in a circle,” the instructor told us. “When it’s your turn, say your name and make a movement.”
One by one, my classmates yelled their names then twirled in circles or stamped their feet. When my turn came, I stood motionless and mute. Finally, after three terrifyingly long seconds, I mumbled my name and shrugged my shoulders. I’m lucky the instructor didn’t approach me after class to suggest maybe improv wasn’t my thing.
She would’ve been right. I am–or, I was–a classic Type A writer, scripting and shaping storylines, polishing words until they gleamed like armor. Improv wasn’t my thing–it was my worst nightmare.
But I kept going back. And just before class ended one night six weeks later, I walked onstage pushing an imaginary broom, declared I was a janitor on Mars, and said I was getting pretty tired of all this dust. Only when I was safely offstage a few seconds later did I realize what had happened. For the first time in my life, I’d forgotten to worry what other people thought. I’d forgotten to be fearful. And I had improvised.
In the year since, I’ve joined an improv troupe that performs in a tiny theater in Baltimore. I’ve been an alien, a sex toy shop owner, a repo man. I’ve been a reanimated corpse who teaches a mad scientist how to dance and a woman mourning the death of her psychic dog. I’ve lost and found myself onstage a hundred different times in a hundred different ways. More importantly, I’ve come to believe in living my life according to the philosophy and principles of improv.
I’m not talking about stand-up comedy, with its planned monologues and rehearsed punch lines. I’m talking about creating characters and stories out of thin air. To do that–and do it instantaneously–requires being willing to risk foolishness and failure; to welcome surprise and the unknown; to act at every moment against the twin traps of fear and judgment.
It also means collaborating. One of the fundamental rules of improv is “make strong offers.” That means each person in a scene must walk onstage communicating a specific idea–a character, a setting, a situation. But another fundamental rule is “always accept,” which means each person must also be willing to mold his or her idea to the others’–or surrender it, if need be. Without the balance of offer and acceptance, the scene becomes an argument, not a conversation–a struggle, not a story. And it will die a slow, painful death, as happened the other night in practice, when I denied my scene partner so bluntly that the director described it as “kicking him in the nuts.” Ouch. Sorry ‘bout that. True collaboration–in improv and in life–is a constant challenge for me.
And so is managing my fear. Sometimes when I’m in a scene, I still fumble for the eject button that will remove me to the wings, where I can mumble and shrug, polish and script. But I don’t want to live there anymore. I can’t live there anymore. So it’s only a matter of time before I rush back onstage.
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