I have yet to have a student in one of my improv classes or workshops come up to me and say, “Hey, can you just point out the good stuff I do today?” Nope, it’s always the opposite: “Hey, can you please tell me the things I’m doing wrong? I can take it. You can go hard on me.” (By the way, I am never sure what that really means.)
As improvisers, me included, we are much more invested in what we are doing wrong than in what we are doing right. There is this misconception that if we solely focus on our weaknesses we will automatically improve. Not true. I am all in favor of working on your weaknesses, but not at the expense of ignoring your assets. Those assets are what help build our confidence and shape our voice — both key ingredients in succeeding in any art form.
I never really understood this until last week, when I met with my 80-year-old father, who is dying.
My dad knew that I had a lot of anger towards him, so he contacted me a couple of months ago and requested we meet. I was filled with resentments. I love the definition of resentments: It’s like taking poison and hoping the other person is going to die. And if that is true, at my rate I was going to die before my father, because they were killing me.
So, with a lot of help from people in my group therapy, I put a list together of the resentments I had towards him as well as things that I am grateful for that he gave me.
When we finally met, I brought my friend Matthew from group therapy because I was terrified. My dad was hooked up on oxygen and we sat in the living room, him in a chair on one side of the room and me on the couch on the other.
On the way over, I had asked Mathew whether I should read the “bad stuff” (aka the resentments) first, or start with the “good stuff” (the gratitudes). He came up with a genius idea: “Why not let your father decide?”
Before I began, I made my amends to my father for withholding these resentments, because I realized I had been holding onto them as a way to push him away. Then I asked my father, “Would you like me to read the good stuff first or the bad stuff?”
He knew his answer immediately: “Screw the good stuff,” he said. “That is all bullshit anyway. I want to know what I did wrong.”
As soon as he said that, I could completely relate. That is me. I am that insecure student who only wants to hear what they are doing wrong.
I read my list of resentments. It was actually easier than I thought. My father was matter of fact. “You’re right, all those things are true,” he said.
This is where it gets good. Then Mathew asked me, “Would you like to read the good stuff, for yourself?” I thought for second, and then I said “Yes, yes I would.”
I began reading the list off of the notebook paper, and I my throat got tighter and my eye lids felt heavy. Tears started to swell and I began to cry as I read each and every one of the good things on that list.
My dad did give me a lot – he taught me to love reading and writing, he was always supportive of my career, he paid for improv and acting classes when I first started out, he gave me the performance gene that I have today, and he was always proud of my accomplishments. Reading those attributes, I could see myself in my Dad in a way I could never see before. For years, I had ignored all of my Dad’s gifts, which meant I was also ignoring my own.
I cannot think of anything more transformative in my life than this experience. Before meeting with my Dad I had felt stuck, blocked and creatively constipated. No matter how hard I pushed, nothing came out. Afterwards, ideas are flowing freely again, like a running faucet that cannot be turned off. I’m lighter and more confident and willing to be a little more honest and take more risks, which only helps my work.
It was clear I had not been acknowledging my good qualities at all. And I suddenly realized that if I want to have a bigger improv career and a better life that I must continue this work of embracing the things the things that are good about me.
Since improv is such a personal art form, whatever is affecting us in our every day lives can have a huge impact on our stage life without us even knowing it. In my case, I learned it in reverse order. Would you expect anything less from me?