I love my Monday night Art of Slow Comedy improv class and I am going to miss them. They have taught me so much and last night was no exception.
In this level, we typically warm up with a series of two-person scenes. This week, after they finished, I asked the class, “How did you feel about what you just did?”
One of my students came unhinged and got emotional, to the point of tears. “I am frustrated. I’m not getting it!” she said. “I’m not good at improv. I don’t feel safe in this class, and I don’t want to expose people to my negative energy.”
She was trembling, raw and vulnerable, and was worried that her negative energy was contagious and everyone else was going to catch it. The class was silent and we all just listened. When she was finished, I didn’t try to talk her out of her experience or make it all go away. Instead, I said, “OK, I want you to use that frustration, that the negative energy, in every scene.”
So she did six scenes in row with different people, using her frustration and that “negative energy” she wanted so desperately to hide from her classmates. Holy shit, what scenes they all came up with! She was a live wire, an open wound, and each student reacted to her differently — some compassionately, some sarcastically, but all vulnerably and really real.
It was one of those nights when the students collectively reached a higher level together, and the students were saying and doing things I never thought possible. It was as if their hearts had been opened up to her and she did the same.
Afterwards, people talked about how free they felt and how easy it was to improvise. When I asked them what they had learned that night, one student piped up and said: “We can use what we got. I need to remember that.”
And so do I. They had re-taught me a lesson I had forgotten, a lesson I use in my own work. Whatever feeling you are having — whether you’re scared or frustrated or sad or tentative — use it in your scene work and let it embody your character.
I first learned this lesson back in 1992 when I was in the original cast of Armando at IO-Chicago. Let me tell you, I was scared to death to be part of that show. I was intimated by the A-list improvisers who were part of that show. I am not kidding you, the first six months I must have played someone who was scared in every scene because that was what my natural state was. Instead of trying to fight my feelings, I just embraced them, and it really worked.
Often times, improvisers will try to override their so-called “negative” emotions of fear, sadness, and anger with that bullshit, pumped-up, fake improviser energy. More skilled improvisers learn how to just accept their negative energy and use it.
What was so cool about Monday night’s class was that it wasn’t just one student who had a breakthrough, the entire class had one. And it all started with one brave student being willing to take a risk and be honest and messy about her “negative energy.”
She was right about one thing. It was contagious and we all caught it, thank god, including the teacher.