Tag Archives: depression

Falling by Numbers

If you’ve done big group trust falls at camp or in an improv workshop, the goal was probably team bonding. I’ve used a version of trust falls I call Falling by Numbers to keep an improv troupe in a state of heightened awareness. Maybe they also bond or whatever, but that’s not something I can control, so I’ve given up trying.

At the beginning of practice, the coach assigns a number to each player. Throughout practice, the coach calls out numbers one at a time, and whoever has that number yells, “Falling!” and falls. Right away. Even if it’s in the middle of a Party Quirks or a Harold. The rest of the troupe catches the faller and lifts her back up. Then the scene or game continues as though nothing had happened.

I’m less interested in developing trust in the faller and more interested in cultivating trustworthiness in the catchers. I want players to grow eyes on the sides of their heads so that they can be ready to run in any direction, at any time, to whomever needs them most in the moment. I want them playing with their whole bodies, not just their faces and voices. You can’t catch someone just by saying, “I’ve got you!” You have to move. I want to see that alertness spill over into how players behave on the sidelines. (Y’all, I have some opinions about sidelines.)

Let’s take for granted that you are playing with the kind of people who would never, ever drop you on purpose. If that’s not true, it’s time to get out of that nightmare troupe* and look for your dream troupe.

A trustworthy troupe will catch you no matter where you fall, but you can help them out by falling well. Keep your eyes open, call “Falling!” loud and clear, and fall toward the center of the room where your teammates have the best chance of catching you.

Basically, the opposite of this:

This comes to mind for me now when I feel old hints of old depression or anxiety symptoms flare up. I might not have any control over whether or not I’m falling, but I can call it out and fall toward my friends instead of away from them. Maybe they’ll catch me, maybe not, but they definitely won’t if I don’t make it clear that I need trustworthy people to be ready just in case.

 

*Third Wheel is the only troupe I’ve ever been in that has dropped someone. It was at our very first show, it was a result of not paying attention or sharing focus well, and it was traumatizing.

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.”

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.