Monthly Archives: October 2010

Fear, Failure and Feathers

Here is the picture from my elementary school history book that made me afraid of being tarred and feathered.

I thought it might happen to me on accident if I walked on our road too soon after new asphalt had been poured. I don’t know where I thought the feathers would come from, though. Or the colonists.

(Other childhood fears included: scorpions, letting my feet touch the floor if the lights were out,* and the witch from “The Three Little Pigs.”**)

I’ve been thinking about fear because of improv. I’ve heard that fear of public speaking is almost as common as fear of death. Several people lately have told me that they can’t imagine trying improv, that they would be so afraid that they would throw up or pass out.

I want to tell them that a very good improviser I know has been known to throw up before shows. And I’ve passed out at key moments in plenty of practices, including practices I was directing.*** Improvisers aren’t fearless people but people who choose not to let that fear keep them from playing.

However, we do let that fear drive us away from playing our best.

The common things improvisers are afraid of include: Not being funny enough, looking ridiculous, having too much responsibility, having no control. Really, those are all manifestations of the fears of being hurt and alone.

If I don’t control this situation, it might go somewhere awful. And if it goes somewhere awful, it will look like my fault. And if it’s my fault, other people won’t want to play with me anymore. And if nobody wants to play with me anymore, I will be alone, and it will hurt. Therefore I must control all scenes and games or I will be alone. Probably forever.

When you actually write it out or say it out loud, you can see how irrational it is.

I think the best thing for me, and probably the best thing for many of my improv friends, was to experience undeniable failure.  

I didn’t control the scene, and it DID go somewhere awful! I knew it I knew it!

And then to realize that that’s as far as it went. We moved onto the next scene after that, or we shook off that horrible performance and showed up ready for practice the next week. None of the other scary hurt-and-alone-in-the-dark things really happen after failure. Ok, so there’s tar on your shoes. Acknowledged. But where did you think those feathers were going to come from again?


 *This was somewhat to do with scorpions, which were a real threat in my house, but mostly it had to do with that there might be some tar on the floor and I might accidentally step in it and get sucked in and be tarred and feathered.

** I know. There is actually no witch in “The Three Little Pigs.” A wolf, yes. But no witch. I still had nightmares about that witch, though.

***Anemia + abject panic = fainting.