During an improv class show, the performers are in control of when they go on the stage. I was a sprinter and starting pistol. But I never shot the pistol. It was fear. So I stood there the whole show ready to go but never went.
Bright lights in my face while I stared out at what would be the crowd if I could see them. There were four people on the stage. I was in the wings waiting for my chance to go out. I never went out. I stood there like a sprinter ready to bolt off the starting line as soon the starter pulled the trigger.
Improvisation is a theatrical art usually done for comedic purposes. It is often confused with standup. A popular version of improv, known as short-form, is the show Whose Line Is It Anyways. However, that only encompasses only one form of improv. The most popular is long-form improv. An improv show looks a lot like an episode of SNL, but the show is entirely made up at the moment. One of the most famous improv theaters is The Second City in Chicago. Improv comedy can lead to hilarity and a wonderful night or lead to real cringe embarrassment.
Those are the stakes, but without stakes, it wouldn’t be funny.
Fear In An Improv Class
Many people take an intro to improv class with no prerequisites to make new friends, work on their listening skills, and in general learn all sorts so life skills. Classes are typically eight weeks long and are great for team building. Tons of improv games are played early one so the classes are fun. Comedy classes are a great way to improve your improv skills and get better at scene work. However, the main reason people take an improv class is to get over a fear of public speaking.
Public speaking is a universal fear. Humans are communal animals and when you present to the entire community you risk upsetting the community. In the hunter-gatherer days, this could mean exile and certain death. This is why it is such a big fear for so many people.
It feels like you are risking your life.
In this way performing in an improv show is a death-defying act. You’re on the stage in front of a crowd with nothing planned and you must entertain them. It’s like crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. But instead of falling to death, you risk social ostracization.
Because public speaking is a fear everyone has, improv is the perfect environment to witness the fear and how it manifests in people. Nothing invokes a crisis in people quite like the looming date of performance. In fact, it’s such a big fear that over the course of an improv class you can usually expect a few people to drop out of the class. Classes are several hundred dollars. People are more willing to throw that money out than look stupid on a stage.
I learned through improv classes that fear is tricky. People can be acting out of fear and not even know it.
There are several common ways that fear manifests in improv that carry over to normal life. If you spot yourself doing these things, you’re likely afraid of something.
It’s very common in an improv class for people to get stuck doing the same character every show. They do it once with great success, and they keep going back to the well. The problem is it never has the same magic as the first time, and the improviser spends the whole show trying to find a way to force a character into a show that may not need it. They’re acting out of fear.
They do the same thing every time because it works and they use it as a crutch. But the truth is they’re missing the chance to grow and get better. They’re afraid to try something new.
In everyday life this often manifests itself. Do you find yourself at work constantly doing the same tasks over and over again? Do you have a routine you stick to and never deviate from? Are you writing only one type of blog post?
You should ask yourself if you actually enjoy the activity. Because there’s a good chance the reason you haven’t escaped from the routine is a fear of trying something new. You’re missing out on the opportunity to learn and grow.
Working blue is a comedy term for being very raunchy. An otherwise-normal person when they hop on a stage will say the most atrocious and inflammatory things. People will laugh but it is often out of discomfort. These improvisers are hiding behind raunch instead of actually saying something they believe. They know if they say these outlandish things no one will take them seriously.
by being raunchy, hiding their true feelings and opinions. They’re afraid of the audience seeing who they truly are and what they truly think.
Working blue doesn’t have a direct carry over to the real world. But many people hide behind humor. They’re afraid of showing their true thoughts and instead hide behind jokes, and never make any meaningful connections.
In an improv scene, it is best to make statements. Preferably bold ones. An improviser who goes out there and asks only questions is not helping the scene or your scene partner, but also not standing for anything. They are characters without a point of view. They’re boring. and inevitably not funny.
A few examples of dialog to show what I mean.
“Where are we?” “Who are you?” “Do you like horses?” – We can infer almost nothing from this line of questioning.
“I love Puerto Rico, Dad. It’s the perfect place to tame a wild horse.” – There’s plenty to infer from this line. We know they’re in Puerto Rico. It is a father and a child. And for some weird reason, they’re in Puerto Rico to tame horses.
There is so much more information exchanged with statements rather than questions. But people ask questions out of fear of sounding weird. Similar to the people who work blue. They’re afraid to show what they really think. They hide behind questions, and never showcase who they are.
Not Getting Out There
This is the fear I suffer from the most. I get on the stage and then I hide inside waiting for the “perfect” opportunity that never comes. When I get out there it’s usually fine, but getting out there is the hard part.
Honestly, it’s hard for me to analyze this one since it’s my demon.
What I can say is this is a product of overthinking. It’s very much related to analysis-paralysis. It’s a deer-in-the-headlights syndrome. Acting in any way would fix the issue. But that first step is terrifying.
Because you’re so afraid of failure, you’ll only go out there when the conditions are right. The thing is the conditions are never right. And you just sit there waiting. You can learn from failure. You can learn from success. You can’t learn from inaction. The fear slows your growth.
What Progress Feels Like – Shame
Breaking through the fear is not easy. Not only that but once you do breakthrough and try something new, you’ll be hit by a giant feeling of shame and embarrassment.
I can’t tell you how many times after an improv show I’d drive home and then sit in my car thinking about the show. And think about how stupid I was. The weird thing about shame is that it almost physically hurts. I’d writhe in agony in my driveway at 1 am.
Over time I came to learn that shame is what growth feels like.
It’s similar to the muscle soreness you feel after not working out for a long time. Sitting in your car thinking you’re an idiot after doing improv is the same as trying to go up a flight of stairs after leg day.
It hurts. It sucks. But you’re getting stronger. You’re learning new skills.