Tag Archives: trust

Trust Falls and Red Noses

I sat in on one of Paola Coletto’s Red Nose workshops a few weeks ago, just to watch. The performers were practicing trust falls.

I’ve led versions of trust fall games in the interest of developing trustworthiness in the catchers. But one thing I’d never thought to look for in a trust fall was the facial expression on the faller.

In the Red Nose class, Paola had the performers pair up and take turns falling backward into one another’s arms. She pointed out when a faller clenched up her jaw, or forgot to breathe, or shut her eyes. Then the player unclenched her jaw, or breathed, or opened her eyes, and tried again to fall without letting that falling feeling hijack her whole face.

Then, Paola asked the players to take turns standing in neutral while the class cheered. If you’ve ever done this, you know that it’s a confusing emotional roller coaster to be on stage without having anything to say or do.

If you haven’t done it, think of that moment between the time you step on stage and the time you get a suggestion from the audience. You don’t have a character yet, you don’t have anything you’re supposed to say or do, and your body is trying to deal with the fact that people are looking at you.

A priest recently told me that the scariest part of preaching was the time between the end of the Gospel reading and the beginning of the sermon — that is, the time it takes to walk ten feet from the side of the stage to the center of it and say, “Please be seated.” It’s only a few seconds, but it’s when the adrenaline hits, and there’s nothing to do but be looked at.

Think of spreading those three or four seconds out to a full minute, and that’s how it feels to stand in neutral wearing a red nose. It feels like falling.

Which is why it makes total sense that a player’s “I’m falling” face is usually the same as her “I just walked on stage what on earth am I supposed to do?” face. Clenched jaws, held breath, and closed eyes are coping mechanisms a player uses to shove down feelings she doesn’t want, to close off and protect herself from the audience. At least, they’re mine. And I don’t have any idea I’m doing them unless I make a conscious effort to pay attention.

It’s not as simple as relaxing your jaw. Because when you relax you jaw, you find that you’re holding your breath. And when you take a deep breath, you notice the tension has all moved to your hands, which are now balled into little fists. You release your fists, but now your hands are shaking and your fingers are numb. The tension doesn’t really go away, it just moves from one place in your body to another. By the end of one minute of this, some players are laughing uncontrollably; others cry; others have to sit down so they don’t pass out.

And then, the next class, you do it again, but you notice all of these things yourself instead of having someone else call them out for you. Once you feel them for yourself, you can play with those feelings.

So that’s the benefit for the faller: to learn to recognize that feeling so that you can manage it on stage without throwing up a wall between yourself and the audience. Or just without throwing up.

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.

Trust first, then love.

A much earlier version of this post appeared a couple of years ago on a now-defunct blog. I cleaned it up for you, but I preserved the original comments. You don’t go throwing away your mom’s sniffles.

Before I could seriously do improv, I had to heal from church. Playing taught me a skill I’d totally lost but that I needed if I was ever going to brave church again.

The churches I grew up in were mired in conflict. Not honest, productive disagreement; more like festering resentment. It was the kind of conflict that nobody talked about directly, only through gossip. You never knew what people might be saying about you or your family behind your back.

This led to ugly church splits. (Has there ever been a pretty church split?) When I was in middle school, my parents moved the family to a church that had had no splits in at least decades, maybe ever, because maybe everything would be ok there.

And everything was ok for awhile. The church ran so smoothly because everybody had a deep, unquestioning trust for the pastors. That worked well enough until the pastors fell apart — bickering, gossip, and moral failings* left us without anyone in charge.

By the time I graduated high school and moved away, I had collected a compelling list of reasons not to trust people.**

All this mistrust handicapped me when I started learning improv. 

I would decide I couldn’t trust a fellow player because she intimidated me or I didn’t know him well enough, but then our scenes together were guaranteed to flop. According to our directors, the only chance any of us had was to trust one another.

But I already knew that trust is foolish! Trust leads to betrayal and disappointment! Why would I make myself vulnerable to that?

Because that’s the only way anyone would want to play with me. Because it’s the only way I could ever get any good.

I couldn’t start trusting everybody all the time — remember how foolish that is? — but maybe I could try trusting a little. Just these few players, though, and just for 2 hours a week at practice. I can handle anything for 2 hours.

My playing got better, and I bonded with my troupe. That trust bled over into how we treated one another outside of practice. Somewhere along the way, we found we’d grown to love each other.

I’d always thought I needed to be friends with someone for a long time before I could trust them. Now I was finding that, if we trusted each other first, love followed. Some of my deepest friendships are still with people I got to know because we learned to play together.

Some of the friends I made in improv gave me rides to their church, where I found a community of people who trusted and loved each other in real life. I’ve now been a member about seven years.

I am not a preacher, nor do I have of any gifts of healing or tongues or evangelism or any of those big impressive-sounding ones. But I know God has met and healed me through play more than in any other way, and play is something I can teach.

* “Moral failings” is church-ese for addiction or infidelity. Maybe more, but that’s how I’ve heard it used.
** There were bright spots, too. I have some wonderful memories of children’s choir and youth group rattling around in there with the trauma.