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Why We Need Love and Support in Improv

Last week I interviewed Chicago comedian Kelsie Huff for an episode of Improv Nerd, who runs a very popular stand-up class for women called Fem Com. In the interview, Kelsie talked about how important it is to create an environment in class where women feel supported and nurtured and don’t have to apologize for what they say.

I love Kelsie’s philosophy, and I think feeling supported is as important in an improv class as it is in a stand-up class. Until our conversation, it’s something I took for granted: You cannot expect people to take risks unless they feel supported. Without that support in the room, we really cannot do they work we need to do.

There is a saying that I believe they use in a lot of 12-step programs that goes: “We are going to love you until your love yourself.” That applies to improv.

If you are like most of us who come into improv, when we first come in, there is part of us that is broken. We have been criticized far more in life than we’ve been complimented. We are very fragile, we just don’t know to what degree. We have been so beaten up and beaten down, and all we want is to learn how to express our tiny little voice in the big bad world. So we take an improv class even though we are terrified, assuming that the teachers will tell us what we’re doing wrong and beat us down like our family did growing up.

Instead, we experience just the opposite. We experience a culture of acceptance and support and are told that there are no mistakes, which is can be a mind fuck for most people. Really? No mistakes? How can that be?

That’s why improv can be such an aphrodisiac. Of course, as we get stronger and more experienced, we can handle more competitive improv programs and we do not need the hand-holding of our first classes, but in the beginning, feeling supported is absolutely essential.

When I teach my level one improv class for The Art of Slow Comedy, I bust my ass to make sure the students start to trust me, the class and the process, and to understand that this is a safe place to express themselves (though this has become a little more trickier over the years).

In my first level, I make sure to spend a lot of time on play. I use a lot of warm-up games, and once I hear them laughing, I know that they’re starting to bond and their defenses are coming down. Throughout the term, I use various improv games and exercises to encourage them to create free-flowing dialogue and respond to their partner. I want to reinforce that there is no pressure to be funny, and I tread lightly on the so-called improv rules so people don’t get in their heads.

When all of these things are working, the class suspends their judgments and insecurities for two hours and starts to truly collaborate. As cynical as I am, what we are creating in class is an environment of unconditional love. And that is truly a beautiful thing.

How to Deal with Fear Before a Show

How to Deal with Fear Before a Show

Long-Form improv classesFear before a show is unpredictable. Sometimes I have it, and sometimes I don’t. Last month, I had it before doing “Messing with A Friend” with Susan Messing.

I love Susan as much as a person as I love playing with her. Having Susan ask me to play with her in her improv show is not only an honor, it’s a joy.And that’s where the fear comes in. Any time I’m afraid I’ll lose something that brings me joy, my thinking goes a bit wacky. The day of the show, I started having thoughts like this: “I am going to have a bad show. It’s going to be so bad that Susan will never ask me to play with her again.”

As I went through the day those thoughts became a mantra and that mantra was dangerously close to becominga self-fulfilling prophecy if I didn’t do something about it.

By the afternoon, I was still not in enough pain to tell on myself.  I have a high tolerance for pain and anxiety.So, finally at dinner that night, I told my wife all my doubts and fear about the show that night. My wife Lauren, is wise and supportive and smart, and she just listened, and didn’t try to fix me or worse tell me that I should not feel what I was feeling, which always leads to shame. Immediately I felt some relief, because as painful as it was, I had admitted it, and that helped. But the show wasn’t until 10:30 p.m. I had four more hours to go, and I wasn’t sure how long my good feelings would last.

They didn’t. A half hour before the show, my head filled up with those thoughts again: “I know this show is going to suck. Susan will never have me back. It’s over.” I sat in my car outside the Annoyance Theater on Broadway Avenue, in the seedy north side neighborhood of Uptown in Chicago, and called my friend Ryan. Like my wife, Ryan is wise, and supportive and listened, giving me encouragement, but mostly talking me off the ledge. After a couple of minutes, I realized the ledge was only about three feet off the ground. Most importantly, at no point in our conversation did he say “Don’t be afraid” or “You shouldn’t be afraid.” I don’t call people anymore who say that kind of shit, unless I am trolling for shame.

When it comes to fear about performing, I think we have it all wrong. You can’t deny your fear or just snap your fingers and get rid of it. We’ve got to acknowledge it, so we can use it. Del Close used to say “Follow The Fear.” He got it — we have to admit that we’re afraid first before we can follow it.

When I first started dating Lauren, I was scared to have sex with her. I had all sorts of reasons to be afraid: my lack of experience, my fear of intimacy, fear of getting her pregnant. I know it’s nuts. At the time, my crazy therapist gave me a bit of advice “While you’re having sex, tell her that you are terrified and you want her to keep going.”

This is no different than improvising. Admit you are terrified and keep going.

After getting off the phone with Ryan, I entered the theater, and when we did the show that night it was great, and I realized a big part of the reason it worked was because I had let go of the fear by talking about it with other people.

Martin DeMaat, one of my favorite improv teachers, used to come backstage before a show and hold both hands out and say “Here, give me your fear.”You would then pretend you were handing him over your imaginary fear. It was incredibly hokey and something my friends and I would make fun of him for when we were doing our Martin imitations, but the truth is I do it too by telling people I am afraid.

Over the years I have seen students struggle with fear before a show, especially in my upper level improv classes when they have to perform a long form show for family and friends on the last day of class. Instead of admitting they are afraid, sometimes students end up quitting a class or two before the performance. It’s sad. I wish they knew that it’s normal to be scared and by just showing up, they are succeeding.

And maybe the next time I do Messing with A Friend, and believe me there’ll be a next time, I will be brave enough to share my fear with Susan.