Monday, April 14, 2008

What I Learned From The Improv

I was born without the performing gene. By that, I mean my body’s never had even a single ounce of desire in it to get on stage and perform. Of course, my body’s never had even a single ounce of talent in it, either, so staying out of the spotlight hasn’t been too tough, thus far. Even when I play dress-up with my young sons, I usually volunteer to be the prop master, then go take a union break on the couch. Basically, in the great play of life, I’m happy to just sit in the audience while someone else puts on the show. Especially if there’s popcorn.

So what was I doing signing up for an Improv comedy class?

There are two answers to that question. First, this year I had the great opportunity to record a couple of my essays for our local NPR station here in Austin. And, even though this was technically “performing”, and even though I get stage fright leaving the outgoing greeting on my voice mail, I still thought it was something I could handle. After all, what’s so hard about going into a recording booth and reading an essay into a microphone?

Apparently a lot, if you’re me. After 30 minutes of takes and retakes and failing to follow the producer’s direction to sound more “like myself” and less “like a squirrel who’s been shotgunning Red Bull”, I realized I needed help. It was time for me to finaly come out of the wings. It was time for an acting class.

I didn’t want to take a traditional class, one where I’d have to emote and play characters and maybe even bust out an accent or two. (My husband claims my British accent makes him queasy.) I just needed something to help me loosen up a bit. That’s why, when I saw an ad for a Beginner’s Improv comedy class, I knew this was it.

I’ve been a big fan of improvisational comedy for years and have seen shows by famous troupes like Second City in Chicago and The Groundlings in L.A. (places where well-known comedians like John Belushi, Will Ferrell and Tina Fey got their start), and I regularly watched the TV show Who’s Line Is It Anyway? Every time I saw improv comedy, the same nagging little thought would pop into my head: “Man, I wish I was brave enough to do that”.

Which brings me to reason number two: I was turning 40. Any woman who’s approached that particular milestone knows it brings out the risk taker in you. Mountain climbing? Sure! Kickboxing? OK! Bungee jumping off of the Golden Gate bridge just to show I’m still as cool as I was in my 20’s? Bring. It. On. Yes, I was scared to death at the thought of actually acting in front of people, but I also knew that it was now or never. Besides, if I put it off any longer, I’d probably be in danger of breaking a hip.

The first night of class, I slunk nervously into the funky Hideout Theater in downtown Austin, desperately hoping I wouldn’t do something that’d wind up on Youtube the next morning. Remarkably, though, my nervousness all but disappeared within just a few minutes due to the fact that my teacher, Shana Merlin, has that rarest of gifts--contagious enthusiasm.

A trained actor with years of teaching and performing experience, Shana immediately put everyone at ease by leading us in a few fast, fun games to break the ice. And while the games seemed fairly innocuous, they were all actually intended to help us start building trust in one another. Trust is the cornerstone of improv. She then explained that, unlike traditional theater, improv doesn’t use a script. Rather, the performers make up everything as they go along, usually based on audience suggestions, so everyone multitasks as writers, editors, casting agents and directors. That doesn’t sound so hard, I remember thinking. After all, I’m a mother. I can change diapers, grill a burger, grout tile and yank a toddler off a ceiling fan with one hand, while vacuuming and playing Texas Hold ‘Em with the other. All I do is multitask.

For the next 12 weeks, our class played various improv games to learn the proper tools, then finally started to act out scenes. And while it wasn’t always easy and I didn’t always conquer my shyness, I definitely made progress. I didn’t cry, throw up or curl into the fetal position while screaming, “I am not an animal!” while on stage, anyway. In fact, after just a few weeks, I actually started to feel…confident. And I was doing things I’d never in a million years have thought I was capable of doing. One night, I played a scene as a school principal with cat mannerisms (“Tommy, your report card…gaak! Hairball!”), another night I was Didi, the tough, streetwise girl threatening the Chess Team. It was fun, it was creative, it was spontaneous, it was, well, freeing. For three hours each week, I wasn’t a stressed out, suburban mother. I was whoever I decided to be.

Perhaps even more surprising than my newfound confidence was the fact that I found myself starting to use improv skills in my real life. Because if there’s anything that’s a constant improvisation, it’s raising a family. Anyone who’s ever pulled a screaming 2 year-old out of a public fountain could tell you that.

The one particular improv skill I found myself most drawn to was the “power of yes”. In improv, it’s important to always say, “Yes, and…” to keep the action going. For example, if you walk on stage and your scene partner says, “My, isn’t it a lovely day on Mars!”, you shouldn’t respond with a “block” and say “Whaddya mean? This is Jersey, you moron.” Instead, you might say something like, “Yes, the Red Planet is lovely today! Let’s call the aliens over for a picnic!” then you’re on your way to a funny scene.

After learning about the power of yes, I begain to realize how often I was using “blocks” in my day-to-day life. Sometimes I said “no” just because it was the easiest thing to do. Or I ignored my husband’s suggestions to do something different. I began to see that the “power of no” was cheating me out of some really good things. So, one day when the boys came running up to me, loudly yelling that they were being chased by Darth Vadar, I didn’t immediately block them and say, “That’s nice, guys, but Mommy’s busy right now.” Instead, I used the power of yes and accepted their offer by bellowing: “Then let’s grab our light sabers, men!” For the next hour, the boys and I laughed, screamed and fought off the Imperial Empire. They couldn’t have been more thrilled. And, except for a somewhat unfortunate light saber injury to my ear, neither could I.

Another improv skill I brought to my real life was the embrace of failure. In class, if we did something wrong or screwed up, rather than feeling ashamed, we put on a big smile, gleefully yelled “I failed!”, then took a deep bow while everyone applauded. How awesome is that? Think about it: you accidentally send your client the wrong invoice, then have to face your irate boss, and instead of cowering down and apologizing, you insanely yell, “Woo-hoo, I FAILED, dude!” Yeah, OK, your boss probably wouldn’t applaud so much as send you straight to Human Resources, but the point is, even if you don’t say “I failed!” out loud, why not say it to yourself? Stop beating yourself up for all the little things that go wrong and instead, just admit the mistake and move on to the next. After all, there’s always going to be another chance to prove yourself. Another chance to not fail.

But perhaps the best lesson I took away from improv was simply to be more spontaneous. To see the humor. To realize that life itself is an improvisation, and I shouldn't waste time worrying about everything and trying in vain to control it all.

Like recently, when I was at the mall, ready for a day of shopping. Ten minutes in, my son Jack decided he “CAN’T HOLD IT ANY MORE, MOMMY!” and let it fly in the Banana Republic accessories department. Sure, I could have completely freaked out and lost it, but instead, I improvised. I simply picked him up, threw his dirty clothes in a plastic bag, then walked out of the store, my head held high and my naked son wrapped in a newly purchased $25 t-shirt. (So he was not only dry, but stylish as well.)

My next Improv class starts in a few weeks. This time, we’ll be performing in front of a live audience. Of course, I’m already scared at the thought of being on stage in front of people who aren’t related to me. And my head is already full of questions, like “Will I be ready? Will I be funny? Will I at least be a better actor than William Shatner?” But the thing is, there’s no way to know the answers until I get on stage and find out. Until I say yes. And you know what? I think I will.

This was just published in the Spring 2008 issue of a great new magazine called HybridMom.

And if you're in Austin & interested in some fun improv classes, check out Shana at MerlinWorks.

And what's up with me finally knowing how to do hyperlinks??


north dakota girl said...

I look forward to Mondays and your new posts!!
I loved the celebrating failure!I wish I had known that a looooong time ago!

Queen Goob said...

Contagious enthusiasm - sounds like something that’s snorked from your nose when you have a bad cold.

Wish I were in Austin, those classes sound like a blast. And we’re all so very proud of you for accidentally stumbling across how to hyperlink. BIG girl!

MadMad said...

*Happy sigh* This was a good one! I'm going to come read it again. I love the power of yes idea (except for the part where I'd have to play with my kids, because that? I'm tired of them, already!) Congrats on learning hyperlinking!

Anonymous said...

My age-related head-turner was at 30. The choice was between a tattoo and a body piercing. (I did neither.)

Your choice sounds like much more fun. And healthier.

You go girl. May the force be with you.

Cheryl Prater said...

Hey you! Love the idea of "yes" and I plan to use it more frequently as in:
Yes, I'll have some more wine. Yes, wine goes great with Raisinettes.
Yes, it's almost 5pm and you know what that means.....

VE said...

Sounds like fun. I should try improv sometime.

Rabbitch said...

Oh man, I love the improv -- those were my favourite classes both in high school and college.

I am now trying to impress you with the fact that I took college-level classes to learn how to do what most kids do by instinct.

And the power of yes is good. Please be aware that you will have a "mid-life crisis" every five years from now on, if I'm anything to go by, so you might want to watch the random "yessing".

Minivan Mom said...

This is a great post...although personally a bit confusing for me.

I love the lesson of "saying yes" and how liberating that is...and yet, we also often hear how as women, we need to invoke the power to "say no" without guilt, and put limits on the demands that people make of us, and we ourselves.

So do we say yes?
Or no?

I'm going to go with a definitive "let me think about it".

the mama bird diaries said...

I know you are so much better than William Shatner.

That is the first thing i have ever read that made me actually look forward to turning 40.

And I'm saying YES tomorrow.You have contagious enthusiasm. Awesome post.

~ Denise said...

Bring. It. On.

40 is great! I like how your embracing it.

coffeypot said...

I admire your courage. People and dogs tell me I should be doing stand up all the time, but I am a coward and could not do it. If I punched out a punch line and heard nothing but crickets, I would die right on the spot. I bet that would get a laugh, though.

hokgardner said...

Bravo and good for you!

TLCknits said...

You go g-friend!.. I think it's GREAT... I wish I lived in your area.. as I would have loved to see it LIVE!

Anonymous said...

Forty isn't great--it's FABULOUS! I hit 39 and started freaking out, but at some point in the next few months I figured out the 40 was going to be the time to truly start enjoying the things I'd been working so hard to nurture. I'm three months in and loving it :-)

This one was a gem, Wendy. Keep 'em comin' and I'll be looking for you on Comedy Central ;-)

Sans Pantaloons said...

When you talk Wendi, I am all ears!

Diane LeBleu said...

Hi Wendi - I really enjoyed this piece and can't wait to read some more, time willing. You'll need to tell my about your screaming toddler in the fountain experience (I've had two of these experiences already in my short life already!) That was certainly something to write about. The Writing Mamas Salon will have a breath of fresh air with your presence - can't wait to meet you there.

Diane LeBleu - of the Writing Mamas Salon of Austin

Bonnie, aka M.O.T. said...

wow, imagine stumbling upon a blog entry that was actually informative and funny. I'm totally going to look into improv classes, maybe in a few months. or do you think it would be funny to do improv with a baby hanging from your nipple? tough call.

The Intracerebral Itinerary said...

My improv skills are definitely lacking. So are my general acting skills. I was in an ANTH 300 class in which we not only had to invent our own language using phonetic charts, but we had to act out a skit in front of the class in that language.
We sucked.
Everyone else seemed to do great. Basically, we were bested by aliens, teenagers, and drunk cavemen.

Anonymous said...

I loved your email to Proctor & Gamble! I just read it on an internet forum. Too funny!

Bonnie said...

Thankyou Wendi tha was inspiring. I am wondering if she would be willing to come here and teach. I could use something freeing. Also I am dying to hear how the improv night went. Do tell.

Kelly Jene said...

Definitely a good one. Now I'm fearing turning 40. Do I have to sky dive? I'd rather take the improv class!! :)

KarenB1961 said...

Amusing and very thought provoking! Everyone should do something that will take them out of their 'comfort range', even just for a short time. You will be surprised at how liberating it can be. Kudos to Wendi!

Oh, and I thought 'William Shatner Bashing' was just a Canadian thing.

Jennifer Brown said...

I caught this in Hybrid Mom (okay, I actually stole the mag from my doctor's office when I saw your name. What? If he can afford that beach house in Aruba, he can afford to buy another damn magazine...) and loved it!!! You always inspire me with your humor writing, but this piece just... inspired me. Very cool!