Monthly Archives: July 2012

How to Be a Jerk and Have No Fun.

Are you having fun?

If you are not having fun, seriously consider the possibility that you are a jerk.

I’ve created a handy quiz, like in a magazine, to help you figure out if you are the jerk.

Click the picture to see full size.

If improv isn’t fun, it probably has to do with judgment. You’re judging other players, judging yourself, or judging your coach. Judgment is antithetical to acceptance, to YesAnd.

If you are the jerk in the troupe, not only are you sabotaging yourself, but you’re making it hard for your friends to play with you and hard for your coach to direct you, and now nobody’s having fun. Just like you. So congratulations.

The solution to not having fun is to have fun. That means showing up — physically and emotionally — and playing with your fellow artistic geniuses. Having fun doesn’t mean everything will be easy, but who cares if it’s easy if you’re having fun?

For the sake of argument, let’s say I’m wrong about you being a jerk. It really is everybody else’s fault.

It does. not. matter. Have fun.

Even if everyone else really is better than you, have fun. If you’re having fun, your shortcomings won’t matter as much, and you’ll get better faster.

Even if one of your troupe members really is a black hole of comedy, have fun. If you support them anyway, you might be surprised. And even if you’re not surprised, this scene is over in three minutes, so who cares?

Even if your coach is asking you to exercise muscles you didn’t even know you had, have fun. Be sore later, but have fun now.

Even if you think your director is trying to ruin your life by turning your troupe into an extension of his own maniacal ego, have fun. And maybe consider firing him later, but don’t think about that during practice.

I know that middle column of the chart well because I’ve spent some time in all those white boxes leading to JERK. I know that 90% of that was my own fault. The other 10% was the fault of my coaches for not calling me out.

As for that lower left hand quadrant, I’ve written here about playing with depression and here about finding a troupe with a common goal. Do whatever it takes to have fun anyway until it’s time to walk away.

And there is a time to walk away. The good folks over at People and Chairs have an excellent post called On Coaches, Chemistry, and Finding Your Dream Team that talks about this. I recommend reading the full post, but the ending especially is gold (emphasis mine):

At some point, it will be time for you to leave: your team, your Coach, or the theatre company that trained you. This is a good thing.

When you do, try to do it with grace and respect.

That team who liked fast-paced shows while you prefer slowprov? Wish them the best as you both pursue your own interests.

That Coach who drilled you on game of the scene till you wanted to throw a chair? Be thankful for the skills they imparted, and for helping you define your own beliefs.

That theatre company that gave you a start? Say a silent “Shalom” and step aside to make room for some new up-and-comers.

Be grateful for each and every experience, then focus on doing more of what fulfills you. In life, as in the Harold, nothing is ever wasted.

Yes, there is time to walk away. Figure that out with your coaches, your teammates, and your journal outside of practice. During practice, have fun anyway.

Depression and the discipline of just showing up

I have said before that improv is not therapy*, but it can be therapeutic.

I got hit hard by depression and anxiety about a year into practicing improv. My playing wasn’t stellar during that time, because I was so full of self-judgment that it was hard to have fun. I thought about quitting.

My counselor suggested I show up and pretend to have fun, just for a few minutes at a time. Did it fix everything? No, but it got me through practice that night.

As I healed up, pretending to have fun turned into really having fun. I’m not sure which came first, really.

Doing this in improv helped me to do it at church. While I was depressed, it was pretty hard for me to connect with other people, much less with God. I couldn’t focus to read the Bible. But I could show up at church, and I could be present while other people read Scripture, and sometimes I could join in the prayers or the Creed with my mouth if not with my heart. I don’t remember exactly when pretending to say the Lord’s Prayer turned into praying the Lord’s Prayer.

Just showing up at improv practice overflowed into just showing up at church. I couldn’t muster the emotional energy to sincerely pray the Lord’s Prayer, but I could still recite it. Somewhere along the way, pretending to pray in church turned into praying in church.

Even if you’re dealing with something emotionally crippling, the discipline of showing up is hugely helpful.

For me, it was also helpful to practice focusing on other people, just for a few minutes, just for this scene. And then just for another few minutes, just for one more scene. My scenes were probably not awesome. That’s ok.

My troupe and my church both had grace for me, which encouraged me to have some for myself.**

*OH MY GOSH IMPROV IS NOT THERAPY. 

**If you’re depressed and are in a church or friend group that is less gracious than mine was, I highly recommend the book Darkness Is My Only Companion, as well as the chapter of Good News for Anxious Christians entitled, “Why You Don’t Always Have To Experience Joy.”

Improv is not therapy: a cautionary tale

Improv can be very therapeutic. It can teach you better communication skills, help you access and process your emotions, and give you practice relating honestly to other human beings. And, if you’re a Christian, I think improv can give you some concrete practice in doing unto others and being part of one body. Improv has helped me be better at being a human.

But I cannot emphasize this enough: Improv is not therapy.

I’ve been part of troupes where one player had a crush on another, or a grudge against another, or whatever, and they made every scene about that. I had one teammate who went through a phase of turning everything into a father-son scene in which the son takes revenge upon the father and another who made every scene into a fantasy of his relationship with one girl.

If a coach asked a player like that about her choices, she would say, “That was my first instinct. I’m drawing on my life experience.”

Ok, do that. Draw on life experience. Take your instincts seriously.

I can’t tell you your instincts are wrong. But you should have the self-awareness to know when your instincts are helpful. Work on your interpersonal relationships outside of practice. Drop the agenda. Improvise in the actual moment with the people who are actually present.

Improv is not therapy. For that matter, church is not therapy. Therapy is therapy. And it might be totally necessary and helpful, but it’s for a certain time and place.

Do not turn your improv practice into group therapy time any more than you would turn an inductive Bible study into group therapy. You’re there for a very specific purpose. Leave your issues at the door. Take care of yourself outside of practice, or else you’ll end up with a cripplingly dysfunctional group dynamic.

And now, a true, cautionary tale:

This was our “ironic detachment” phase. It did not serve us. The Breakfast Club was not taking new members.

We were a college troupe, and we named ourselves Third Wheel. We may as well have called ourselves, “We feel awkward and jilted, and maybe nobody likes us, but watch us not care.”

Four of our guys, two of whom were gay, were in love with one of our girls; well over half of us (myself included) were on heavy duty medication for depression and anxiety. Because we couldn’t leave our issues at the door, the atmosphere was poisonous. Every practice was like that one Angel episode where our heroes get possessed by metaphors for their relationships. 

If our coach called us out on it, we paused our infighting to band together against him. He was obviously wrong and couldn’t understand the emotional depth of our scene work. (We burned through a lot of coaches.)

I so wish these pictures were not typical of our collective attitude.

We didn’t get many shows, and we were cut from the roster after only a few months. It is really, really hard for a whole troupe to get cut at a Christian college, where folks are generally prone to charity. To my knowledge, we were the only team ever to get cut rather than fade out as our members graduated.

I was outraged and heartbroken at the time. However, if I were in the club director’s position, I hope I would have had the guts to make the same decision.

Half of the players quit pursuing improv altogether. Some of them were really good, too. It’s a shame, but who could really blame them after that soap opera?

Even so, some of us are still friends, and those of us who stuck with improv were better for having been through an in-depth course in how-not-to-practice. I hope you don’t have to go through the same thing to learn that lesson.

For the record, I think each of these people are lovely. There are hugs when we cross paths.

Playing with an open heart.

Meet Jet Eveleth, one of my favorite improv teachers in the world. In her words, this is what it takes to be a good team:

A key here is shared goals. A troupe that lasts is a troupe that is making progress together toward an agreed-upon end. And — guess what! — the same goes for church congregations.

Not long ago, I took a workshop with Jet called “Loving the Harold,” which emphasized quirky organic games and grounded scenes. At the end of the three weeks, one classmate spoke up, “Ok, so now I love the Harold. I love this kind of Harold. But I’m afraid if I start playing like this with my team, they’ll eat me alive.

Jet said something like:

They very well might eat you alive. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Start daydreaming about your perfect team. How would they treat you? How would you play with them? Go ahead and start playing like that now. And expect to get your heart broken.

Some people find their soul mate early on, but some people have to go through relationship after relationship before something clicks. If you were vulnerable and open and you got broken up with anyway, you still have to pick yourself back up and be vulnerable and open again. Don’t be so busy protecting yourself from being hurt that your soul mate can’t recognize you.

You have to keep playing the way you want to play deep inside, and you have to let yourself be seen. You have to believe that there are people out there who want to play with someone like you, but they will never find you if you’re not playing with an open heart.

So I started daydreaming about the kind of troupe I wanted.

I like watching witty, stylized shows, (like Whirled News and Improvised Shakespeare). When I have friends in from out of town, that’s often what I take them to see.

I like watching mind-spinningly fast, aggressive improv (like Deep Schwa and Beer Shark Mice). I find it impressive, because that’s not how my brain works.

I could stand to develop more in all of those areas, and maybe the best way for me to do that would be to jump into teams who have those shared goals. Ultimately, though, I have not been happy on teams like that. I like seeing their shows, not playing in them.

My favorite way to play is patient and relational, maybe with some big group non-scenes to shake things up. I thoroughly enjoy Whirled News and Deep Schwa, but TJ and Dave and The Reckoning melt my nerdy little improv heart.

I want to play like the work is important, like I have all the time in the world, like my partners are poets, and like human beings are inherently amazing.

Not everyone wants to play like that. That’s ok. It doesn’t mean they’re bad guys. It just means they have certain goals, and their goals aren’t the same as mine.

This whole idea resonates with my own experience with different churches and denominations.

I didn’t fit in with Southern Baptist churches in my hometown. And, because my hometown was almost entirely Southern Baptist, I thought that meant I didn’t fit in with any church anywhere. I would have to be a rogue, church-less Christian. Love Jesus, hate religion. That sort of thing.*

(For the record, that works just about as well as a being a rogue, troupe-less improviser. Sure, I can say I’ll work on a coach-less solo project, but I can only get so far without critique from veterans and support from other players who are growing along with me. It might be necessary to go solo for a season, but it’s not a long-term solution.)

Am I saying that Southern Baptist churches are bad? No. I’m just not cut out to be a Southern Baptist anymore than I’m cut out to be a ComedySportz regular.

After some trial and error, I discovered I’m most free to be myself in an Anglican church. I need the structure, the liturgy, the sacraments. I need the arts in worship and the theology classes. It’s where I belong.

But it was four years between the time I realized that and the time I let myself use my gifts and make my friends in the congregation. If I had risked being open earlier, it wouldn’t have taken me that long. I missed out on four years of using my gifts for the church and letting the church serve me in turn because I wasn’t willing to risk coming to church with an open heart.

*And by “thing,” I might possibly mean heresy. Maybe. If, by “religion,” you mean “hypocrisy,” I’m totally with you, but please say what you mean.

So the Christian thing wasn’t a joke?

A few years ago, as I prepared to graduate from college into a recession, I poured all my energy into job applications. I applied for so. many. jobs. I sent my resume everywhere from the American Girl Place to the American Nuclear Society — anywhere I thought might take an English/theater major.

One day, I got an email asking for a phone interview about a comedy writing position I’d applied to on a whim. I’ll call the interviewer “Gary.” I was slightly suspicious to begin with, since Googling the nonsense words in Gary’s email signature pulled up an inordinate number of furry event calendars. I  spent most of the following conversation hoping that was a coincidence and trying to avoid imagining Gary in a fox costume.

Me: What kind of comedy writers are you looking for?

Gary:
Funny ones.

Me:
Right. What kind, though? Stage? Screen? Sketch?

Gary:
Screen. We’re working on a sitcom.

Me:
What’s the premise?

Gary:
I can’t tell you a lot, since it hasn’t come out yet, and there are intellectual property laws. I can tell you it’s about an oddly matched set of roommates.

My head:
Like Friends or Gilligan’s Island or Laverne and Shirley or the Odd Couple or Three’s Company or Will and Grace or … or … or …


Me:
What level of content are you looking for?

Gary:
Dense. Juicy. More Simpsons than Family Guy.

Me:
How will it be rated?

Gary:
Highly, I hope. We’re shooting for a big audience.

Me:
I guess I’m trying to find out what your target audience is. What kind of comedy is this?

My head: Please let this not be furry porn. Or porn of any kind. Please.

Gary: Why do you care? Is there any kind of comedy you won’t write?

Me:
Well, I’m a Christian, so there are a few boundaries* I’ll want to respect.

Gary:
Ha! We are into pushing boundaries here. Why don’t you come by the office, and we’ll see if you’re a good match for our team. Is this weekend good?

Me:
Would next week work? I’m graduating from college this weekend.

Gary:
Congratulations! What college?

Me:
Wheaton College.

Gary:
Oh. So the Christian thing … that wasn’t a joke?

Me:
No.

Gary:
You’re serious?

Me:
Yes.

Gary:
Christians make me want to gouge out my own eyes.

Me:
Ok.

Gary:
Also, you might as well know, this sitcom is going to be mostly NC17/X. A Wheaton graduate wouldn’t be a good fit for us.

Me: Probably not. Thanks for your time.



*This is one of several reasons why I’ve not been that motivated to get more deeply involved in the Chicago improv scene. There is amazing work going on there, but I’m not at a point where I’m comfortable being totally steeped in that culture. For example, I have a low threshold for rape jokes and for team bonding via collective substance abuse. I know not all teams are like that, but I’ve run into it enough to know it’s not something I can handle right now.

You can’t be a human in a vacuum.

This video, created by the good folks over at People and Chairs, was a gut check for me.

Part of what makes it so funny is that the woman behaved as though she was putting on a generic, universal sort of lipstick (while we could see the specific color going sloppily all over her face). The man wasn’t answering an actual phone he could picture, just some archetypal phone.

The thing is, nobody owns an archetypal phone or universal lipstick. I own a very specific phone and — well, I don’t wear lipstick, but if I did, it wouldn’t be the Platonic ideal of lipstick, unless that’s what happened to be on sale at Target.

Precise object work may seem like a chore, but it will make your life on stage infinitely easier.

I found the idea of object work intimidating when I thought it was about being an impressive mime. The key mistake here is the word “impressive.” I thought object work was there for show, so the audience would understand that I knew what I was doing.

When someone told me that improv is not about impressing the audience, object work didn’t seem as important, so I didn’t put much energy into it. I put all my energy into being a human being in relationship with other human beings.

Lately, though, I’m realizing that it’s pretty tough to be a human in a vacuum. I’ve got to be someplace, and there are probably things in that place that I can touch.

Jet Eveleth, one of my favorite teachers, doesn’t coach you to “do more object work.” Instead, she says, “Live in your world. Touch your world.”

When I take that note, the whole scene opens up. I don’t have to stress about inventing clever things or coming up with the next plot point; I can discover what’s going on based on what I see in my world.

Object work isn’t mainly about technical precision, but a lack of technical precision is often the result of not really seeing your world. If my coffee mug grows and shrinks with abandon, then sort of disappears sometimes, my scene is likely to be clunky and forced. If I’m only pretending to see my world, you’ll have to watch me work hard to think of the next thing. That kind of effort is tiring and ugly.

I don’t see and touch my world for the sake of the audience. I see and touch my world because I want to give my brain a break, because I want to make my life easier on stage.

Give it all, give it now.

“Spend it all. Shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place…give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things will fill from behind, from beneath, like water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I was reminded of this Annie Dillard quote by Laura Turner’s guest post at Rachel Held Evans‘ blog this week. Turner writes, “Where am I giving from, and what am I holding back? Am I giving from abundance? And if so, why I am I holding on to so much when I know that everything I hold back from God is exactly what separates me from him?”

I would add that everything I hold back separates me from other people, too. And this is a problem if I want to do improv.*

If I find myself holding back my ideas and my impulses — which are all I have to offer on stage — I won’t connect well with my scene partner, and then the audience won’t connect with our scene. We won’t stumble into truth or comedy if we can’t connect, and we can’t connect if we’re not willing to give generously of ourselves.

I go through phases of having trouble giving of my ideas. “My ideas aren’t good enough” is one reason; “My ideas are AWESOME and I’m saving them for myself” is another. Both of these attitudes are selfish. The first masquerades as humility, but it’s actually selfishness and fear.

When I first started learning improv, I would try and come up with good ideas to use at my next practice. And sometimes, during practice, I’d come up with a Really Good Idea. A Hilarious Idea. An Artful Idea. But I wouldn’t play it right away. I’d want to save it for a show. No sense wasting it in practice, right?

Ironically, when I did use these good ideas in practice, the scenes turned out to be flat and uninteresting. And those good ideas I had on the sidelines to save up for a show? I don’t remember actually using any of them. They were ideas that made sense in the moment, but not outside of it. They absolutely turned to ash.

Preparing characters and situations before practice is not actually improvisation; it’s writing. Writing is wonderful and valuable, but it’s a different pursuit altogether. Improv really is best when it’s improvised.**

Those impulses you have on the sidelines? The ones in your gut? Go with them. Right now. Don’t judge them. Don’t save them for later. Don’t hold them back out of politeness. Don’t be polite at all; be generous. The most generous thing you can possibly do is throw your idea out there for the group to play with.

Maybe the idea won’t play the way you thought it would when it occurred to you. Maybe it morphs into something else. That’s ok. If you’re on stage, the idea has already served its purpose. The only time an idea has any value is if you let it move you from the sidelines to the stage. 

Once you’re on stage, it’s not your idea anymore, anyway. It belongs to the group. That means it’s not up to you to make it come out ok. You can relax.

Remember that attitude of thankfulness exemplified in Red Ball? Generosity is born out of that. If you feel like you can’t afford to give your ideas and go with your impulses, ask yourself if you’re thankful. Everything is a gift you can be specifically thankful for.

thankfulness –> generosity –> connection –> truth/comedy

*It’s also a problem if I want to live life in the Church. Or even if I just want to be, you know, a human being who has friends.
**Duh.

In which Rabbit has an amazing audience.

I’ve coached several troupes, most of them at the local college. A couple of years ago, after a rocky show, I heard a troupe member complaining, “Well, that just wasn’t a good audience.” We’ll call this troupe member Rabbit.

Dear Rabbit,

Do not complain about the audience.

The audience does not control your show. 

An audience can’t make a show good, and an audience can’t ruin it.

At your small Christian college, the audience is especially gracious. That can be more harmful than helpful, because sometimes they laugh just to be polite, and it’s easy to become dazed by their laughter and lose focus.

The audience is full of your Friends-and-Relations, who are going to cheer for you no matter what because they know you, Rabbit. They’re on your side. They want to make you happy because you’re a nice guy, and they want you to keep inviting them over for honey and tea.

You don’t want the audience to laugh and cheer just because you’re Rabbit. You want them to laugh and cheer because something they saw and heard resonated with them.

If they don’t laugh, it’s not because there’s something wrong with the audience. They showed up, they paid a dollar, and that makes them an amazing audience, Rabbit.

A real bad audience would be one that didn’t plan on seeing an improv show. They were sitting in a bar or a coffee shop, trying to talk with their friends or do homework, and somehow an improv show interrupted them. That’s a bad audience, but it’s not their fault, because they didn’t buy into this whole improv thing in the first place. (Theater is a lot like church in that way, but we can talk about that another time.)

One day you may look out into the audience and see not a single Friend-or-Relation, and that’s ok. It might mean that you’ve gotten good enough that strangers want to watch.You may never have an audience as much on your side as your Friends-and-Relations are, so this is a time to play hard. You know they’ll love you even if you fail, so there’s no point holding back.

Big or small, loud or soft, familiar or strange, your audience is amazing. Make sure to say thank you.

Love,
Alyssa

Standing in Neutral — or — Just another day with the gremlins

Standing in Neutral

Ideally, you would do this exercise before you had time to get to know your class very well.

One at a time, stand in neutral in front of the group for 45 seconds. Don’t grin, stiffen up, or layer any quirks onto your ol’ regular self. Try your best to be a blank slate.

After those 45 silent seconds, the class should make observations about what unconscious ticks or habits they observed. If this person was a character just as they are, what character would they be?

When you hear your classmate’s thoughts, you’ll want to argue. “But I wasn’t being a character! I wasn’t playing anything! I was in neutral! Where are you getting all of this?”

But the truth is that there’s no such thing as true neutral. My neutral looks radically different from your neutral. We project all kinds of things about ourselves without saying anything. We can control this to some extent by what we wear — for instance, I dress professionally for a job interview so that I will be seen as a professional.

For the most part, though, we’re totally unaware of how we come across to others. If you’re going to do improv, it’s helpful to get a sense of how others see your neutral, because that is how they’re likely to endow you in scenes. If I want someone to see me differently from the way they see my neutral, I have to do something to throw my body, face, and voice out of their normal alignment.

Like so much of improv, this exercise is easier to show than it is to tell, so here’s how it went the first time I did it in Noah Gregoropoulos’ class:

After noticing that I was standing very straight, my class noted that I look with my eyes instead of with my whole head. Then they discussed what kind of character I made them think of:

“She seems like that person at the library or on the bus who keeps looking over at you, not because she’s interested in what you’re doing, but because your iPod is too loud or you’re tapping your fingers on your book. She probably won’t actually tell you to shut up, though, unless you really do something to push her over the edge.”

“Really? I thought of her more like that teacher that has a great connection with her students. She’s amazing in the classroom, and the kids love her and work hard for her. She doesn’t fit in with the teachers, though. If she has to spend time in the teachers’ lounge, she sits in the corner and reads.

“I thought she looked like that woman who is staring out the window and trying to be calm, but she knows that the gremlins are coming. They’ve come often enough that she really she shouldn’t be startled, so she’s trying to play it off like she’s not upset, like this is just another day with the gremlins.

That was four years ago. At the time, I was struggling with anxiety and depression, and I wonder how obvious that was. I’m curious to know if my neutral has changed since then. The best way to find out is probably to get into a room full of honest strangers and ask.