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Finding Your Authentic Voice on Stage

I am a slow learner. And I’m conflicted about learning new things: My soul loves to learn while my ego hates it.

Last week, I wrote and performed a new solo piece for a storytelling night called Louder Than a Mom. It was about when I was growing up and we’d go out to dinner as a family and my mom would ruin it by embarrassing us.

The last time I did Louder Than a Mom, I felt I could have been better prepared. So this time, I really wanted to do a good job.

I was willing to put in the work, which meant doing things differently.

So, I found an open mic in my neighborhood in the back room of an Irish bar to try out the piece before going up at Louder Than a Mom.

The day of the open mic, I had the thought all day of blowing the open mic off, but I made the mistake of calling my friend Darryl, who talked me into going.

Walking in, I felt as terrified as when I did when I was 18, walking into my first improv class. By the time I got up there to do my piece, there were only about eight people left sitting in the audience in folded wooden chairs. I didn’t care. I told my story, and because I didn’t have it timed out, I had to rush the ending.

It was far from perfect, but I got a sense of what worked and what needed to be cut from the story for Louder Than a Mom. More importantly, I was proud that I did not bail on myself, a habit I’ve had since I was a kid.

A week later, I was on the stage at Louder Than a Mom, and the audience was packed and my performance went really well. The piece still needs work, but it was a huge improvement over the open mic.

I remember interviewing Mike Birbiglia for an episode of Improv Nerd and he commented on why creating a one-person show takes so much time. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what he meant. But now I do.

Writing is its own process. It’s pen to paper. It is controlled. But then when you take what you’ve written and put it up in front of an audience it takes on a life of its own, and hopefully, if you’re lucky, you will lose control of it.

When you perform something you’ve written, it shows you things you didn’t know weren’t on the paper. It will surprise you. It is exciting and scary, and mostly it is messy.

I had forgotten that you can’t find your authentic voice without putting it up in front of people — that is where the courage comes in.

When you’re writing, very few people see your rough drafts. But when you’re doing solo work, hundreds of people see your rough drafts as you work out what the story is really supposed to be.

Recently I read a great quote from Micheal Keaton that he said during a commencement speech at Kent State University that summed up what I went through perfectly: “You have to take risks. Put yourself on the line. Don’t be afraid to look foolish, makes mistakes, take chances. It is one of the best things you can do. And what that will lead to is self-discovery, and it will lead you back to your natural, authentic self. And I really encourage you as you get older to go back to who you were when you were a kid, because that was the most authentic you there has been.”

What will make you stand out is your authentic self. That is the thing that will attract people and opportunities to you like magnets. And to get there, you must look foolish and make mistakes, which as improvisers we get, but when I do anything outside of the realm of improv, I have to be reminded of. And that’s why I’m such a s-l-o-w l-e-a-r-n-e-r.

This summer, give yourself the gift of play! Sign up for one of Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Summer Intensives to learn how to play in a new way. Only $229 if you sign up by June 30!

5 Ways that Journaling Can Make You a Better Improviser

I am often get asked the question what can improvisers do in between shows and class to get better? One thing I found that helps is to write, or more specifically to journal.

You can work out a lot of stuff on the page that can help you get out of your own way. I have also found writing on regular basis helps me to articulate my ideas, which is a plus if you’re someone who needs to think on your feet on a regular basis.

So, when I heard improviser Matthew Beard was creating an improv journal, I got excited. His new book is called “The Yes And Journal,” and he is currently doing a KickStarter through Aug. 31 to raise money to publish it.

So, this week I asked Matthew if he’d be willing to share his thoughts on how journaling can make you a better improviser. Enjoy!

  1. Journaling lets you get out of your head and see your thoughts objectively
    If you have negative beliefs about yourself during class such as, “I’m not as funny as everyone else,” or “I have no reason to be here,” take the time to write those thoughts down after class. You’ll be amazed at how they will immediately feel false once you see them on paper. Trying to wrestle with these thoughts from the inside is nearly impossible, and will cause most of us to spoil our improv. Instead, take a few minutes to reflect on paper and move on.
  2. Stream of consciousness journaling is an incredible solo improv exercise
    For ten minutes, try writing non-stop. Even if you have to write “I don’t know what to write,” keep going the entire time. This exercise activates your subconscious and forces you to keep making choices. You might be shocked by the creativity that flows when you let go of trying to be right. The key to applying this to improv is to focus your exercises on a purpose, like taking on a point of view, connecting to an emotion, listing a million possible solutions to a made-up problem, etc.
  3. Journaling can help us connect with ourselves and our scene partners
    I’ve journaled after almost every workshop or show I’ve ever been in — reflecting on how I felt during each scene/exercise and why that might be. When I felt great, journaling helps me remember my choices and appreciate my scene partner’s work. When I felt bad, journaling helps me see that experience in the third person and connect with why I felt that way without ego. With this practice, fear of failure disappears and you can connect more fully.
  4. It can help us slow down and get real on stage
    Not everyone understands their own emotions. If you’re the kind of improviser who wants to be able to go to real places on stage, first you have to be able to understand where those feelings and points of view come from. Before you try to improvise characters on stage with emotions and opinions as dynamic as your own, it might be worth trying to answer the hard questions in your own life. Who hurt you more than anyone else? Whose love do you crave the most? How do you respond to pain? How do you internalize love? Answering questions like these as specifically and honestly as possible on paper will help you understand the impulses of your characters and feel safe playing them.
  5. Mindfulness journaling is an exercise in being present
    Journaling can also be an exercise in quieting your thoughts by focusing on the present moment. Mindful writing can be as simple as making a list of what you can see, hear, and feel right now. “I hear birds chirping outside my window,” “I see paint chipping on the edge of my desk,” etc. This kind of relaxation and present-focus is good for improv and good for mental health in general. Believe me, it works.

Looking to do more compelling two-person scenes? Sign up for Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 2 Class, starting Sept. 6! The Early Bird special ends Aug. 23, so sign up today! 

197: Peter Grosz

Peter Grosz is best known as one of the two guys in the Sonic commercials, but he has also written for The Colbert Report and Late Night with Seth Meyers. He has performed at The Second City etc., the UCB, Boom Chicago, and iO Chicago. Jimmy talks to him about why he still loves improvising, getting hired to write for Colbert and why he likes to play the unlikable Sidney Purcell in HBO’s VEEP.

194: Nia Vardalos

Nia Vardalos is an actress, screenwriter and director; best known for her critically acclaimed films My Big Fat Greek Wedding I and II.

Jimmy talks to Nia about how she went from working in the box office at The Second City to getting hired as an actor, using improv to write her screenplays, and the importance of following your heart.

183: Jon Favreau

Jon Favreau is a well-known writer, actor and director who has directed such films as Iron Man 1 and 2, Elf, Made, and Chef, just to name a few. He’s also the director of Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book, which comes out April 15. Jimmy sat down with Jon Favreau to discuss his comedy days in Chicago, what tools he uses from his improv training to write his films, and working with Bill Murray on The Jungle Book.