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.