Accentuate the Positive

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Accentuate the Positive

In our last rehearsal for Jimmy and Johnnie, our coach, Jack Bronis, said to me and John Hildreth that we need to play every show with joy.

I have been improvising for 30 years and I have never played with joy. I have played with angst and fear and pressure on myself, but certainly not joy. I have not done anything in my life with joy.

If you look at the great improvisers — the TJs, the Susan Messings, the Cook County Social Clubs — there is an element of joy in their work. That is why we love to watch them so much. Messing always says when you play in her show, Messing with a Friend, “If you’re not having fun then you are the asshole.” And given that statement, I am often the asshole.

As Jack pointed out in the rehearsal, I do my scenes in “Heavy Sigh.” He’s 100% right. I live my life in “Heavy Sigh.” I know “Heavy Sigh” to me is reality. I am much more of an Eeyore than a Pooh. And how this effects my improv is that I avoid making positive choices in my scenes because I have hard time making them in my life. This is where improv and life cross, and the thought of making the positive choice about something in a scene, like being happy or excited, seems fake. I tell myself, the tortured artist that I am, that it would not be organic if I were happy in a scene, it would not be truthful.

Recently, I had a chance to put this to the test in the most recent episode of Improv Nerd. My guest was the super talented and lovely Katy Colloton from the Katydids. (Check out their web series, Teachers. It’s awesome.) We did a scene where she announced to me that she was pregnant, and I can tell you my natural reaction would be to make the negative choice. “I don’t want it. Let’s get an abortion.” Instead, I decided to choose something different, as fake and uncomfortable as it was. I chose to be excited about her announcement, which led to whole bunch of discoveries about home schooling the kid, what holiday we wanted to have the baby born on, and that having a baby was like a small business.

As the scene went on, I felt more and more comfortable with the emotional choice of excitement. I can tell you now, playing the positive choice opened me up and surprised me and hopefully surprised my partner.

As Jack further pointed out in the rehearsal, you want to “use your whole palate” of emotions, and I tend to just use the dark colors, while I ignore the brighter ones.

I see some of my students need to use some of the darker colors, because they come to me like they are ecstatically happy and unconnected,and I think I am master of getting students to go the darker, more real place. But like in life, we need balance. We need both positive and negative emotions on stage; that is a truthful portrayal of the human experience.

Recently, a student in one of my Art of Slow Comedy improv classes said on my feedback form, “I think you’re a closeted optimist, Mr. Carrane. Come Out! Come Out!” I think this student is right. I think the whole Eeyore thing is part of my persona, my schtick, a schtick that is hard to let go off because in my head it held me together. If I wasn’t always negative, who would I be?

My wife, Lauren, disagrees that I don’t have any joy in life. She says I do have joy, I just don’t have words to express it. If you ask me, I’ll say I’m terrified, but she just smiles, knowing deep down I’m excited.

Where I go from here in my improv and in my life I do not know. The only thing is I know is today I am aware of it, and with that knowledge, I have a chance to change.

10 replies
  1. Christie
    Christie says:

    When I see you perform, I see joy. Maybe that’s not how you feel, but I believe there are moments when that’s what you are feeling up there. Maybe it’s projection of the joy you bring me that I feel. Or maybe I vacuum your joy. Gah, I think I need a therapist.

    Reply
  2. Greg Morelli
    Greg Morelli says:

    Sorry I’m going to miss the 1st class of level 3. But I’m going to be in New Orleans for Jazz Fest. So I’m not really sorry.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, Trouble is calling. She wants to have a 3-way with Joyfulness.

    Reply
  3. Joshua Boden
    Joshua Boden says:

    Jimmy,
    I dont believe in fate or supernatural blah, blah woo woo stuff. But it seems that with everyone of your blog posts I find that I am dealing with the issue you are laying down. Sir, your timing is impeccable. I too tend to head toward the dark side and get bogged down in the mistakes I make. But I have been working on it. Studying with Dave Razowskys has helped immensely. That cat is joy on two legs! Thanks for the blog and thanks for the podcasts. Do you have any plans to come back to LA and so more workshops?
    Cheers,
    Joshua

    Reply
  4. Tim Touhy
    Tim Touhy says:

    Get blog post, Jimmy. Sincere Joy can do more than offer change, it can transform. Check out Positivity.com for real science about how to build and broaden positivity. And, here’s dirty secret… positivity is not the elimination of negativity! In fact, we need appropriate negativity because life has its ups, and downs. Now, I’ll try some improv this way too!

    Reply
  5. Louis Hirsch
    Louis Hirsch says:

    Jimmy,
    Your wife is quite right. You do feel joy, you just refuse to give yourself permission to acknowledge, Somewhere along the way you allowed yourself to be sold the bill of goods that you did’n’t deserve it, Time to let yourself feel some of the joy you give to others around. 😉

    Reply
  6. Tony Rielage
    Tony Rielage says:

    I already blah-blah’d on this on my facebook, but I do want to say- when you’re starting in a positive, joyful place, it makes it easy to root for you and your character’s relationships. If the initiation for a scene is dark and negative and conflict-filled from the get-go… I just don’t have it in me to care. Start with happiness, and if the dark place is where it ends up, then at least everyone’s really invested.

    Reply
  7. Jon Bolden
    Jon Bolden says:

    Oh man, I love this. I do improv in Austin,TX on a weekly basis and teach classes. My friend and I started a troupe just to work on positivity and it has done wonders for me. The biggest difference that I’ve found was actually discussed by Aristotle in his poetics and writings about theater. If we don’t get to know anything about the characters before they start fighting, then we simply don’t care about them. In fact, we’re often thinking “those two people hate each other, why are they in the same room.” If you’re playing patiently and doing grounded work, there’s no reason to just be okay with everything at the top of a scene. We’ll get to know you and truly care when a conflict does arise (and it most certainly will!).

    Great read, awesome to hear!

    Reply
  8. NickC
    NickC says:

    Great blog
    If I may offer a gentle challenge….. You mention:
    “getting students to go the darker, more real place” – Is darker more real?
    If we have a full palate of emotions then the darker emotions are no more real than the lighter emotions surely? 🙂

    Reply

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