A few days ago, I had my very first improv show. After eight months of classes, I stood up on a stage, with bright lights shining on my face, a full house staring back at me, and very little plan of what I was going to say or do. Who am I? Am I the same E.J. who nearly puked on her first day of teaching?
I would love to tell you that my first show was amazing. That my quick wit brought the house down. That there was some cosmic confluence of sheer comic brilliance on my part and the appearance of some “improv magic.” However, it was not. Parts of it were very funny, sometimes even I was funny. You could hear me in the back of the theatre. I did not puke on the front row. I had fun. But, the words did not always come to me and I occasionally felt a bit lost. In the end, though, I had a blast and everything was worth it.
Among both those who saw my show and those who did not see my show, the overwhelming reaction has been, “You are so brave!” And because I am a supremely awkward human, I just stand there, shuffling my feet and mumbling something along the lines of, “Thanks. It was not really that big of a deal.” Because let me let you in on a little secret: I was not that brave.
I was not brave because I did not have anything to fear. Somehow the nerves just never got to me. Probably because I had a whole class full of people to fall back on. The improv tenet that I live and die by (even more than the infamous “yes,and…”) is make your scene partner look good. I knew that if I completely fell apart, a friend would be there to catch me. A fact that was proven when my scene partner and I spent a good ten seconds staring intently into each others’ eyes because neither of us had anything to say. Instead, we ratcheted up the tension, which draws in the audience and makes both of us look better. So, it was not bravery that drove me, but the drive to support my scene partners and my own faith in them.
I have proven that I can stand up in front of 150 strangers and make up a whole world off the top of my head. What truly terrifies me, what would take real courage, is standing in front of one person I know and telling them exactly how I feel. I wish I were able to let go of my inhibitions, look the people in my life in the eye, and articulate exactly what I am feeling. However, whenever I attempt to get vulnerable, I pull up short, I stop myself from saying what I really feel. Instead I usually say a watered-down bite of what I meant, leaving the listener more comfortable, but me less satisfied. I want to have the courage to take that gamble, to say exactly what I want to say and to hedge my bets that it will all turn out okay. That is the kind of courage my reserved, closed-off self seeks.
But if I have learned anything from my short history of improvising, this is a wish that is not so far out of reach as I may imagine it to be. I am learning to think with my feet and my heart before my head, and to trust that they know what they’re doing. I have learned that situations that once seemed terrifying (hot stage lights glaring down on my face) can actually be exhilarating. Opening myself up and being vulnerable can lead to the some of the best scenes (because all humor is rooted in truth). The true art of improvisation is translating its lessons to the world beyond the stage. To just say “yes, and…” and take that leap, not knowing what lies at the bottom of that cliff and not really caring, but trusting that it will be something beautiful.