Improv Comedy: A Metaphor for Life

Yesterday night, I conquered a huge fear of mine. I tried improv comedy for the very first time!

If you knew the old me, you’d do double-take upon hearing that I’d done such a thing as improv comedy. Belicia, the perfectionist, the perpetual planner, the girl who never cracked a smile and was petrified of the unfamiliar. How could SHE, of all people, do something as spontaneous, risky, and let’s admit– downright terrifying– as improvisation?

Believe it or not, I’ve wanted to try improvisational acting for the longest time. I am fascinated by how people can get up in front of a crowd without any prior preparation whatsoever, and effortlessly create spontaneous, authentically hilarious entertainment. It definitely takes courage, confidence, and a “just-go-with-it” mindset to do such a thing. Having battled social anxiety for most of my adolescence, I figured that improv would be the very thing to get me out of my shell. After all, what could be scarier than getting up on a stage, without a script, and acting?

Another reason why I thought improv comedy would be great for me is because it directly counters the Belicia that lives with a stick up her ass, lacks spontaneity, fears uncertainty, cautiously plans out her every step and chases perfection. For most of my life, I’ve struggled with crippling perfectionism. So intense was my fear of failure and fault that I was terrified of trying anything beyond my very limited comfort zone, as doing something I wasn’t good at would inevitably reveal my imperfection and deficiency.

In improv, the first thing to go out the window is your expectation of perfection. There’s no planning and dissecting and rehearsing a scene to saturation. The very nature of improv is to resist the temptation to plan ahead, for you never know what offer your scene partners may throw at you. Instead, improv calls for you to trust your instinct and embrace the spontaneity of the art. You throw your ego out the window, stop taking yourself all too seriously and embrace the inner craziness we all have buried deep inside us.

Improv is a real metaphor for what I need in my life– less overthinking and worry, and more trust in my ability to thrive no matter what comes my way. In fact, improv is a metaphor for life– you cannot plan out every step, and when a curveball rears its ugly head, you do the best you can to make good out of an unexpected, trying situation. Sometimes, the greatest, funniest, most genuine art comes from the most unpredictable offers and situations. So it is in life. One year ago, if you’d ask me to do improv comedy, I’d reel back in fear. Little did I know that one day, I’d amount enough confidence to do that very thing I feared most– and yesterday was that day.

At 6:30pm, my mother drove me to Palo Alto, where the three-hour workshop was being held. Of course, I was very nervous on the car ride there. I remember laughing to my mom and saying out loud, “What the hell am I doing? Improv comedy? Like who am I?!” I couldn’t believe I was actually doing something THAT out of my comfort zone. It seemed surreal. Was I terrified? Absolutely! A million thoughts raced through my head during the hours preceding the workshop. What if I make a fool of myself? What if I get really really nervous and lose my cool? What if I’m an absolutely horrendous actress? I was not alone in my self-indulgent worries, as I later found out. There is nothing easy or safe about improv. It is one of the most out-there things you could do! That’s why I am so proud of myself, and of everyone present at that workshop, for taking the hardest step of just showing up.

I arrived at Cubberly Community Center at around 7:10pm. After scoping the campus far and wide, I located classroom H-1, where the workshop was being held. I took a deep breath before walking in to a group of 16. The “ensemble”, as we called it, was already standing in circular position, presumably in the middle of an icebreaker activity, when I made my entry.

I was slightly embarrassed for being late, but what could I do but laugh and adapt gracefully to the situation?

The first game we played was one I had actually done in my Theater 20 class at UCLA. Each person in the circle stated their name and performed a corresponding gesture. We then went around the circle and repeated our own “signatures”, of sorts. After that part of the game was finished, we bumped it up a notch– each person in the circle would choose another person in the circle, and perform both their own name-gesture combination and the other person’s combo. As I had come in late, I still did not quite master everybody’s names and messed up quite a bit, but without any shame. TAKE THAT, PERFECTIONISM!

One thing I really loved about the class is its complete acceptance towards mistakes. As a rule, every time someone messed up in in some way or another, the ensemble would collectively shout, “Whoo-hoo!”, and the error would be quickly forgiven. In that setting, mistakes were not only tolerated, but openly embraced! How much more anti-perfectionism could that get? The exercise was perfect for someone like me, who used to fear making mistakes like the plague.

The first half of the night consisted of a series of improv games, done in pairs or in small groups, to get our brains “fried”, as the instructor called it. The idea was to get everyone as relaxed and uninhibited as possible, before jumping into scenes.

We took a ten-minute break at 8:30pm. Upon reconvening, we did a little check-in around the circle. Each person said a little about themselves and shared why they decided to attend the workshop and what they hoped to gain from it. As this was a beginner’s workshop for adults, most of the attendees were well older than me (I think I was the youngest one there). Some wanted to incorporate a little more spontaneity into their lives, and thus decided to take up improv. Others, like me, were introverts trying to get out of their shells. A cute couple, Robert and Gita, was there because their two children were very much into the theatrical arts, and the two parents felt just a tad left out. This shows that anyone, at any age, can pick up improv comedy as a hobby. Even the instructor, Pam, didn’t begin improv until she was a post-doc at Stanford, ten years ago! So it’s never too late to spice up your life and experience tremendous self-growth through such a fun, interactive activity as improv comedy.

After check-in period concluded, we went on to play the timeless game of “Yes, and”. We each paired up with another individual; partner A started the scene with an action, partner B built on that by saying something like, “Hello, ‘X’. Looks like you’re doing ‘Y'”, and partner A responds to Partner B’s observation.

My partner was a man named Robert (not the Robert who came with his wife). I was partner A, and he was Partner B. In our second scene, I opened by pretending I was writing a letter. He remarked, “Hey, Beth. Looks like you’re busy writing a letter, of sorts.” I then replied, in a hopelessly romantic tone, “Yes John… it’s a love letter… for Ben.”

We went on to do a few of these improvised scenes in front of everyone. It was a little nerve-wracking at first, as sometimes you find yourself drawing a blank when called to begin a scene, but eventually, you learn to have fun with just going with the first thing that pops into your head, and letting your instinct guide you instead of conscious thought.

The final exercise of the night was improvised storytelling. We were divided into groups of 4 or 5. Each group was given a story spine that began with “once upon a time”, and ended with “and the moral of the story is”. Each person in the group was in charge of filling in the blanks of the script with anything they pleased, making for quite the interesting end-product! We did three rounds of this within our groups. At the end, each group picked their favorite story and narrated it to the class. Meanwhile, another group stood close by, acting out the story as it was being narrated. Talk about double improv!

When it came time for my group to be the “actors”, I had already seen how it was done once, and was actually quite excited to see what story we’d be given. The story we acted out went something like this:

“Once upon a time, there was a very beautiful woman. Every day, she’d eat lots and lots of fish. Until one day, all the fish in the pond disappeared! And because of that, she was forced to turn vegetarian. And because of that, she became protein deficient! And because of that, all her fingernails fell off and she became ugly!!! Eventually, she learned that true beauty stemmed from within, and she made it her life goal to preach this truth to her peers. And the moral of the story is, what counts above all else is inner beauty. The end.”

Because my group and I had no idea what the story would be beforehand, we couldn’t possibly designate roles for each person. When the story began, someone had to jump right in to play the lead role of the beautiful woman. That person was me. When the fish were introduced, my three other group members became fishes swimming in the ocean. I proceeded to take imaginary bites out of their limbs. Then, all the fish disappeared, so my teammates ran away from me. I responded by looking crestfallen. Then, I became vegetarian; my teammates returned to the stage as vegetables, and I continued to bite chunks out of their bodies. Then, I became protein deficient. Unsure of how to act out “protein deficient”, I simply rolled around on the floor in a fetal position, which elicited many laughs from the audience. Then, my fingernails fell off, and I stared at my nails in utter horror, gasping shallow breaths and falling to my knees despairingly. When I discovered that true beauty stemmed from within, I looked up to the audience, smiled, and placed both my hands on my heart. I turned to my teammates and preached my findings to them, while they all nodded their heads in agreement. And that, my friends, was the first complete improv scene I’ve ever performed!

Overall, I believe last night’s experience was formative in so many ways. I learned the beauty of trusting my instinct, rather than methodically thinking and reasoning my way through life, as I am so used to doing. In the span of three hours, I gained a tremendous amount of confidence in my ability to handle myself in public situations. This confidence was acquired only by experiencing the gripping terror of facing a crowd, without a clue as to what to do or say and equipped with nothing but your instinct, creativity and ability to adapt, and STILL making it out alive. I grew markedly less inhibited of being shamelessly weird and comical. I expanded my repertoire of identities beyond Myself, playing characters ranging from a Navy SEAL trainee, a hopeless romantic, a neighborhood gangster to an admonishing mother.  Improv has taught me that, in life, sometimes the greatest beauty stems from the most unexpected things. Thus is confirmed my mantra of “leaning into uncertainty” and “embracing it with open arms”.

I highly encourage EVERYONE of all ages to give improv comedy a try, no matter how scary it may seem. Trust me when I say, I was so terrified that, an hour before the workshop, I had half a mind to waste my $50 by not showing up and remaining comfortably ensconced in my hole of comfort. Thank goodness I had the will to quiet that voice and go through with my commitment, no matter how scary it was in the moment. You all can do this too! I promise you– the feeling of accomplishment you gain . upon facing a fear– not out of necessity, but out of personal hunger to rid your spirt of that terror– is unlike anything you can imagine. For each time you are able to push yourself out of your comfort zone, you gain confidence and momentum to keep going and keep pushing. This is a potent form of empowerment.

My improv experience will not stop here, though. I plan on auditioning for an improv theater group at UCLA next year. To push myself even more beyond my perceived limits, I also plan on auditioning for HOOLIGAN Theater’s production of Cabaret and The Little Mermaid, and even some cappella groups (the latter is more of a dare I promised my best friend I’d follow through with). I’ve already enrolled in a public speaking class for fall quarter– that’s yet another low blow to my social anxiety. The momentum is there. Really and truly, I believe that life begins the moment you stop listening to the fearful, terrorizing, inhibiting voice in your head that screams NO, and start taking risks and challenging yourself to do the very thing you think you cannot do.

I think it’s appropriate to conclude this post with some wise words from my greatest role model in life:

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

~ Eleanor Roosevelt

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