To get good at something you have to be willing to get messy, which in terms of improv means you need to be able to do bad shows or bad classes over and over again in order to get good. That’s the secret formula — in improv, in art and in life. If you are reading this and you’re a perfectionist or a control freak like myself, I can’t think of a better remedy or a more frightening solution than to give yourself permission to suck at something first knowing that’s how you will get good. If you want to accelerate your learning, do it in front of people.
Unfortunately, most people give up and don’t want to go through a little pain to get the glory. That’s okay, the choice is yours: to be bitter, frustrated and angry when people express themselves or be the kind of person who everyone gravitates towards because you are expressing yourself on a regular basis. At my age, I perform more for my mental health than to be discovered. And that’s why I have so much respect for improvisers — they go up there in front of people knowing the odds of failing is higher than the odds of succeeding, yet they keep doing it. Is it because they are crazy? Yes, by normal standards they are nuts, but by artistic standards they are normal. They get it. They know what doesn’t kill you on stage makes you a better improviser.
Recently, I did an episode of Improv Nerd, a comedy podcast and live show, at the Chicago Improv Festival. I had done extensive research for the interview portion of the show, and with the help of my girlfriend, Lauren, had written down my questions.
When I got to the theater and unpacked my Whole Foods shopping bag with the raffle prizes, I realized I didn’t have the questions with me. “Shit, I am doomed,” I thought. “The show is going to suck.”
Then after about 30 seconds, something kicked in, much like when I teach a class and an exercise is going south. A message came into my head that somehow, this would make me a better interviewer. The truth is, I have I had been saying for weeks that I wanted the interview section to feel more conversational, and I guess tonight was the night. So with only five minutes before the show, I wrote the questions down, and did the show. I was forced to let go. It was supposed to be perfect, but instead it was a learning experience. The show was solid and fun. The specific learning never comes immediately. The fact that I did the show with such grace and that I instinctually trusted my skills as interviewer was lesson enough, and it helped with my confidence that I could do this show under any circumstance.
In terms of the other lessons, I have experienced enough failing to know that other lessons will follow. All I know is this would have never happened on it own. I needed a force of nature to have something like this happen, and I am grateful that it did. There is this saying that things happen for a reason, and I understand more in more as teacher and performer that this is where I need work in my life.