Monthly Archives: September 2012

On the hook

I’ve said before that Jet Eveleth is one of my favorite teachers. Here she is, talking about nerves and fear:

There are at least 19 wonderful things in this video, but I want to highlight this comment:

“I purposely do things that scare me all the time to learn how to manage my adrenaline so that I can be more authentic onstage. … Especially because I teach, I think it’s really important for me to constantly be scared so I’m empathetic with my students.”

Sometimes, after a Jet workshop, I’d ask, “I’d never done that exercise before; what is it from? Where can I learn more things like this? How can I get better at this?”

Jet’s answer was usually along the lines of, “I learned it from clowning. Paola Colletto is the best clowning teacher around. Take classes from her if you can.”

So I Googled Paola Colletto and found out that her classes were way out of my budget, in terms of both time and money. And I felt a little relieved. Well, that scary thing isn’t an option for me. I’m off the hook.

Until last week, when I heard through the Facebook grapevine that Paola was offering a class called “Physical Theater for Improvisers.” It’s in my schedule and my budget. That puts me back on the hook. I’ve talked with Paola, sent my registration check, put it on my calendar.

I’m purposely doing a thing that scares me. And now it’s time to panic.*

*My friend Steve asked when the class was, and I told him it doesn’t start for another 3 weeks. “So now is not actually time to panic. You cannot possibly panic for 3 weeks straight.” Watch me.

Students scaring teachers

Last night, I played again with my friend Brendon at Open Source Improv. It was our second show. We were all warmed up, the logistics were taken care of, I was feeling relaxed and ready …

Until 3 of my students walked in the door.

Then I got anxious.  

Every week or two, Jimmy Carrane posts a talk show podcast called Improv Nerd, which I highly recommend. His guests are talented improvisers who have some connection to Chicago’s improv scene. In the dozen or so episodes I’ve listened to I’ve noticed a trend:

It doesn’t matter how many Second City Mainstage shows they’ve done, how many i.O. classes they’ve taught, even how many seasons they performed on Saturday Night Live. They say that they’re afraid of being found out as frauds.

This seems especially true of improv teachers. When I took classes at i.O, a few of my teachers would encourage students to come to their shows, then quickly admit that having students in the audience freaked them out. If they just taught a 3-hour class on environment, then their show better have a rich environment. If it doesn’t, their students might call them on it. Or worse, their students might lose respect for them.

I think that’s where my anxiety was coming from last night. It helped that I’d heard so many players I admire come on Improv Nerd and name that feeling. Naming the fear drained some of its power. That gave me enough distance harness that fear as energy instead of letting anxiety win the day.

I felt better about this show than about the last show, partly because the students were there to scare me.* I think I play better when I’m scared but don’t let the fear win.

*I do not think they were there for the purpose of scaring me. That was just a side effect.

Thinking over thinking

I thoroughly enjoyed this video, posted last week by Ze Frank.

In life — especially in church — I view people telling me, “Don’t think so hard! You’re thinking too much!” as a giant red flag. I don’t appreciate being asked to turn off my brain.

Phillip Carey summarizes the problem well in the chapter of Good News for Anxious Christians entitled, “Why You Don’t Have to Worry about Splitting Head from Heart.”

“The new evangelical theology, like all forms of consumerist religion, … requires you to be afraid of engaging in critical thought, so that you’re easily manipulated and easily pressured into wanting to feel what everyone else feels. … So it’s hardly surprising that a misleading piece of rhetoric (‘don’t split your head from your heart’), which has the effect of making you feel you’re thinking too much, is pretty popular in evangelical circles these days.”

I often tell improvisers I’m coaching, “Get out of your head!” At first glance, that seems to be the same thing as “You’re thinking too much!”* It’s not. But I can see them get stressed out when they misunderstand me, because then they start thinking about their thoughts, which is an unhelpful internal spiral of nothing happening.

What I actually mean is, “Think in a different way!” Or, more actively, “Do something! Think about it as you go instead of agonizing about your actions beforehand.”

Most players I’ve coached have been college students at a competitive school. They spend all day at taking notes on lectures, writing papers, doing research, and conducting experiments. They use their analytical brains all day.

When I tell them to get out of their heads, I’m not asking them to turn off their brains. I’m asking them to use a different part of their brain than they use in philosophy class. I’m asking them to use the intuitive part, the playful part. The logical part doesn’t disappear, it just takes second chair for a few hours. That the players are smart, logical people makes the play that much richer.

So I like how Ze Frank says this:

It is possible to overthink, but first you have to think and try and talk and do. And after that, if you’re still at an impasse, maybe then you let go. 

I also liked this:

Laughter is the release of suddenly unnecessary emotional inertia.

(See this post on why death scenes are funny in an improv show.)

*If I ever tell you you’re thinking too much, you have permission to kick me in the shin.

Women in improv: Support vs. Submission

I’ve heard a couple of different improv friends lately mention a person being “the kind of player who takes good care of her partner” or “the kind of player who takes good care of himself.” (I don’t think the pronouns were arbitrary; more on that further down.)

I’m going to suggest that this is not the most helpful distinction. It’s important to take care of yourself AND to take care of your partner, but you can kill both of those birds with one stone by making strong choices. What we need here is a deeper understanding of the word “support.”

In Improvise, Mick Napier puts it this way:

If the first thought in your head when you approach an improv scene is “Support your partner” … [w]hat are you supporting them with?

Are you supporting them with thoughts about supporting them? That’s very nice but not very supportive. … Do you say nice things to them, do you uber-agree, do you pat them on the head, offer them a chair, rub their shoulders? No, the most supportive thing you can do is get over your pasty self and selfishly make a strong choice in the scene. Then you are supporting your partner with your power, and not your fear.

If you want to support your partner in an improv scene, give them the gift of your choice.

So, what’s the best way to take care of myself? To make a strong choice. No brainer.

And what’s the best way to take care of my partner? Also, to make a strong choice. Not deferring to them, saying “yes” a lot, and keeping your own ideas to yourself.

For me, the latter concept was difficult, because I confused ‘support’ with ‘submission’ for my first couple of years of improv. I’m sure there are guys who deal with this, too, though I haven’t met many. I have seen this over and over with evangelical women.

Conservative evangelical gals grow up being told that good Christian girls are polite and deferential. We’re told, for instance, that the only reason Deborah and Jael were allowed to lead is that Barak and the rest of the Israelite men were too wimpy to step up. A woman could only be strong if all nearby men had abdicated their manhood. (Here is a more reasonable interpretation of that story, preached earlier this summer by Rev. Karen Miller at Church of the Resurrection. I highly recommend investing 20 minutes of your day listening to this sermon.)

Even if you don’t consciously buy into these ideas, they’re in the water, and you have to filter for them.

Being polite will not serve you or anyone else. Being generous will. It means giving of yourself, not abdicating yourself. Generosity means making strong choices.

It’s not as though strength is a single cake, and for one woman to have more of the cake, it means a man or another woman has to have less.

Strength is NOT a cake.** It’s more like the widow of Zarephath’s oil, which never dried up during the famine; she always had enough to give some food to Elijah.

Or like the other widow’s oil, which Elisha told her to divide into other jars. She took all the jars in the neighborhood, and no matter how many jars she poured her oil into, there was always enough to fill another jar.**

In God’s upside-down economy, giving things away doesn’t necessarily mean you have less for yourself. Grace isn’t a zero-sum game. The more I give of myself, the more I have. That’s how we’re supposed to live, and good improv is a small, concrete example of how it can play out.

Making strong choices yourself doesn’t mean your scene partner can’t. My strong choices should make it easier for you to make strong choices, which will make it easier for me to make strong choices, in an endless loop of strength and support.

*THIS IS A WAY IN WHICH IMPROV IS NOT LIKE CAKE. My improv worldview may collapse.

**Elijah and Elisha had a thing for widows and oil, I guess?