How our life affects our improv

How we look at life is how we improvise on stage. If we can’t find the joy in our lives and we look at everything going on in the world as a problem, chances are that is how we will initiate a scene.

I see this with my students in class. They will be on a roll, having fun, when out of nowhere one of the players will drop a problem in the middle of the scene like a bomb and everything comes to a screeching halt. Or they’ll start the first line of the scene with a problem, turning the entire scene to a negative place.

I’ve had this same problem often throughout my years as a performer, mostly because I typically focus on the negative in my life.

But recently I had a great breakthrough around this. I was in group therapy, and I was talking about how I didn’t want to be there because I was having so much fun working on my one-person show, which is why I was 10 minutes late.

My therapist looks at me and says, “So what’s the problem?” This gave the rest of the group permission to pile on.

One of the younger members of the group said, “You always bury the lead. You either present the good stuff as a problem or start with a problem rather than the good stuff that is going on your life.”

“Yeah,” another member said. “We only hear what sucks.”

I hate to admit it, but they were right. It was like getting that really hard note after an improv show that keeps you from getting a good night’s sleeping. You wake up the next morning wondering: “Why are the most painful notes usually the most helpful?”

I immediately thought about how this applies to my improv. I am often creating too much conflict in scenes, or adding problems that need to be solved.

I am not saying you cannot do a successful scene that starts out with problem or add one into the mix, but for me, it goes deeper than that. It’s about my outlook on life, and we all know by now that our art imitates our life. For me to change even slightly on stage is an inside job. Sure, I’ve been able to cover up some of this with years of technique, but the inside part I still need a lot of work on.

I have never been the type of player who has been able to separate my on-stage performance from what is going on in my inner life. If I don’t get enough self-care, it will show on stage. When I am resisting other people’s ideas in my life, it’s harder for me to say yes to people on stage. If I think the sky is falling in my life, it’s almost impossible to fake the joy improv is supposed to give you on stage.

This “only focusing on the problems in my life” issue has become part of my personality. There is fear of letting it go because, in my warped brain, it has been a comedy gold mine. And I also suffer from a chronic case of false modesty, in art form that often rewards that. God forbid I tell you my accomplishments or brag about how wonderful things are going. I think you’ll hate me or be jealous of me or resentment me. All things I think I can control.

The truth is, things have been going pretty well for me for a while now. I have been busy making up problems like it’s some sort of short form game. I am married to a great person, Lauren; I have a great daughter, Besty; I have an exceptional bunch of students; and I am having so much joy writing my one-person show.

Makes me think maybe next time I write a blog on this topic that made I should lead with that stuff instead. At least today I am aware of it.

Want to try improv for the first time, or looking for a new approach? Don’t miss Jimmy’s Art of Slow Comedy Level 1 class, starting March 13!