Zapping Me Into the Present Moment
I am onstage, lying on my back and kicking my legs in the air like an upturned cockroach. Seven fellow improvisers are doing the same. They have to. It's a follow-the-leader game, each of us making up the moves for a bit of song while our classmates follow our lead. Why is it so satisfying to make seven other souls roll around on a dirty stage to James Brown? And why did it take an improv course to teach me how important such absurdity can be?
From my first class at ColdTowne Conservatory, I fell for the warm-ups – challenging, ridiculous games that beat down self-consciousness and zap me into the present moment like a stun gun, no matter how in my head I may have been before the start of class. They were the perfect antidotes to the occasional pre-improv dread I felt when driving down Airport Boulevard to the theatre. It was hard for me to muster the raw openness required to stand on stage with no idea of what will happen next. Why would I, someone whose voice would shake just giving a school presentation, want to throw myself into the roiling sea of vulnerability and risk that is improv?
But some kind of magic would always happen in the opening warm-ups that washed away the day's debris and made me feel awake again. Every Wednesday night we stood in a circle, playing games with such dignified names as Big Booty and Hey, Meth Junkie; this simple ritual transformed me from a lone soul stuck in my head to an integral player in a group of people willing to play together. That's not something I find much in regular life. I was lucky to be there.
In each class, the warm-ups led into scene work in which we learned the basic "rules" and forms that make up the limitless world of improv. The rules, more a beginner's guide meant to be learned and then surpassed with experience, became a sort of personal manifesto for me – not just to get through scenes but to get through life. In the Level 1 class, for example, we practiced the basic improv edict of "yes, and." Simply put, "yes, and-ing" means that no matter what your scene partner throws at you, you respond with a figurative "yes" and then build on it. This creates a far more interesting scene than a denial of your partner's offer. I found this works offstage, too: When I began applying "yes, and" to my life outside of the walls of ColdTowne, it often had surprisingly pleasing results.
In some ways, this was the case with many of the improv ideas we practiced – what makes for a better scene often makes for better human interactions in general. For example: Avoid talking about third parties who aren't there (that's boring to the audience and doesn't ultimately feel very good); don't talk about what you might do in the future, but make your scene active by doing something now; if you are about to walk into a scene, match the energy already created on stage; pay attention as much offstage as on, and don't walk into a scene unless you really have something to contribute; back up your fellow improvisers, and don't let them cook onstage; and, of course, listen, and listen well. Not to say that everything I need to know in life I learned in improv, but it was undeniable that these rules we were playing with each week at ColdTowne made life in general work better.
I don't know if any of the five teachers I had in my year of classes knew that they were, week by week, making me a happier person. They just wanted us to do entertaining scenes. But they were all so funny and good at what they do; they could see things in our scene work to which I was blind, finding little truths in their critiques that showed an uncanny degree of insight, both improv-related and otherwise. And they were always willing to be even more ridiculous in the warm-ups and exercises than we were, forging the path to total lack of inhibition. I was impressed.
After a year of improv classes that cumulated in a handful of public shows, I can't say that I conquered my performance anxiety or that I was ever even very funny. But to me, that's not the point. I may have learned more in the cramped black walls of that theatre than in grad school or therapy or meditation class. There are many reasons why I lament that my classes there are over, not the least of which is the weekly guarantee that someone will play Big Booty with me.