Before I took any improv classes, my buddy Stéphane invited Sally and me to see some improv. Like most anxious people, I not only dreaded the idea of being social, but also the “what if” I get called up on stage or made fun of or talked to?
They managed to drag me out. It was Catch-23. An amazing improv show that still exists and is still amazing.
At the back of Clinton’s Tavern, I watched this group of geniuses roll up flowing lava like a carpet, sing a song about abduction (dark, but still hilarious), and walk us through a guided meditation for welders. The creativity of what I was witnessing blew my mind (running theme). No rules. No wrong. No judgement.
I loved it. It never occurred to me that I could ever do it, and if it did occur to me, I was terrified by the idea. But I loved what I saw.
Cut to a couple months later.
My therapist suggests I take an improv class because I’m funny. (Meaning I make jokes instead of dealing with my issues.) I politely inform him of the fact that I would like to have less anxiety, not add the kind that comes with being funny on the spot in front of a group of strangers. Good luck getting me to ever sign up.
Cut to a cracked-open head later.
I signed up for Level A at Second City. (They didn’t have Improv for Anxiety yet, but they do now!)
Sally and my buddy Tom took the class with me. It was like having my own support group entourage. Still, I spent any time there was before class in the washroom. But I found the courage to go into class.
Brian Smith was the teacher. So great. Exactly what I needed. Some gentle love to combat the constant tough love in my head. He was very patient. I remember one moment during Make-A-Story, where I blanked on a word.
(I’ll interject here to say, when you “blank” on something it’s not because your mind goes blank. It’s the opposite. Your mind is so full of information and thoughts racing, that you struggle to pick just one. But I digress.)
The point of the game is to say a word. The next word in the sentence. I didn’t want to get it wrong. If I said a stupid word, it would ruin EVERYONE’S story! Brian waited, and gently said, “Just say anything.” I said “squirrel,” then did the obligatory head-down-in-shame, beat-myself-up pose. Sally told me later that the class had laughed and liked the word squirrel. Whether or not they liked it, I had done it. I’d said a word. Baby steps.
I still had to be dragged to class each week, but I knew it was helping. Little things made big dents in my thinking. The iconic improv principle “Yes and…” is first and foremost about agreement and acceptance of what is. One instructor worded it as “Accept every offer.” I wrote that on a post-it note and kept it on my desk at work.
There was a day where I said Yes to seeing Tom’s band play (even though I wanted to say no and stay home and be safe and not be social) then said Yes to another friend for something else at exactly the same time. Tom looked confused, but I felt so alive. Not only did I have a social calendar, I had a conflict!
(I’ll interrupt here to say, there were times when I’d say Yes, then have to back out because I felt nervous and sick. I’d still recommend you say yes, even if you’re unsure. Hovering in the unsettled limbo of Should I go? or Should I stay home? feeds the anxiety. Make decisions in the moment; you can always change your mind later if you have to.)
Another big benefit of joining improv was the class setting itself. It’s like forced socializing. Each week I would leave the house and have to interact with other humans. Human connection = sooo important. It was a chance to talk about something that wasn’t me and my problems.
Improv is huge for helping you connect. For those who don’t know, I’m not talking about stand-up. I’m talking about a group of people who need each other in order to be funny. Just like Make-A-Story, we build things together. So very quickly it becomes a supportive, loving environment. Because we’re not competing for laughs, we’re finding them together.
Those moments where things go well and it seems funny, you break out of your shell and you look at the people around you and know that you all just shared an experience. And you’re grateful to all of them for helping make it happen. Gratitude = sooooo fucking important.
For the first time in years, I was looking outside of myself. Listening and connecting with other people. Anxiety exists in your head. And it helps to look outside of that, even for a second. The mind can make you scared of a potential danger, but if you actually look outside your mind, you’ll see that the danger isn’t there.
This is important to remember if you have the same pre-class routine I did:
Mind: What if everyone thinks I suck and I’m not funny?
Real: You’re sitting on the toilet right now and there’s nobody else around.
Mind: What if I faint or puke or shit my pants during class?
Real: You’re sitting on the toilet right now so this would be the perfect time to do those things.
Mind: What if I blank and then say something stupid, like “squirrel”?
Real: Get off the toilet and go do that right now because that is goddamn hilarious!
Some part of our caveperson brains are still wired to look out for tigers and other threats to our survival, but most of them don’t exist anymore, so we’ve replaced real dangers with mind dangers. One of the biggest (if not the biggest) is the fear of embarrassment. The danger of being unloved by the tribe. Many of us become “perfectionists” for fear of being seen as anything less than perfect. But perfect doesn’t exist, so it just creates more stress and anxiety.
Improv helps tremendously with that. In improv, mistakes are great. Not just accepted, but great. They often fuel the scene. If you say the elephant was named… um… Squirrel!… that’s great. Your brain will say that doesn’t make sense, but the rest of your team will run with it. And they make it make sense. And then your brain will say, Was I wrong to think that was wrong? And you’ll say, Yes!
Mind: What if I’m seen as less than perfect?
(Imma let you finish, but… I read somewhere that a great imagination and anxiety go hand in hand. It requires a very creative mind to be able to imagine all the crazy scenarios that we fear might happen. So if you’re thinking you’re not playful enough to do improv, you’d be surprised.)
In the beginning, my hands felt like ice and I needed to go to the washroom before every class and every show, but the joy I felt from playing with my friends was so powerful that it gave me the courage to keep going.
Pain and suffering are great motivators. If you hate your job or relationship or anything enough, you’ll change. But love and joy are also great motivators. And it was around now that I started the switch from always moving away from what I hated, to moving towards what I love.
I continued with Second City through Conservatory, taking classes at Impatient Theatre, taking workshops with teachers from Chicago and New York and LA and anywhere else that would come to me, so I didn’t have to fly. I started to feel good about myself. I was okay at something. The good feelings from classes and shows started to bleed into real life and work.
I’ve been doing it for 10 years now, and I have fun and play more than work at scenes. I get to play with my heroes from those Catch-23 days, and I keep learning and growing as a performer. I’ve gone from being numb and detached (to not feel the pain of emotions) to being one of those people who get passionate and loud and flail their hands around when they talk. Hell, I could talk about improv forever. But I’ll stop here.
Thanks Sally, Tom, Stéphane, Catch-23, Second City, Impatient Theatre, Brian Smith, everyone I’ve ever taken a class from or with, everyone I’ve ever played with, everyone who’s ever come to see me, and everyone in the improv community for being so loving and supportive. Thank you. You saved my life.
Step 5 recap: Improv pulled me out of depression and got me to be grateful for life.
This is probably where a lot of people stop their journey: “I’m able to go out. I’m performing in front of strangers. How much stronger do you need to be?” Good question. In Step 6, I try to move from coping and maintaining, to actual joy and contentment.
Shameless plug: I teach a class that uses improv exercises to help people through their anxiety. Message me if you’re interested in finding out more (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Thank you so much for reading. Now watch this video on play.