This summer I was a middle aged rabbit going through a messy divorce. I was a grandmother with a penchant for S&M, and a bank robber who could communicate only in song. Oh, and I made an appearance as Satan's bridesmaid (not the maid of honor, though, which was a huge point of conflict).
No, I'm not on weird drugs (peyote isn't that weird, right?) and I'm not a compulsive liar (though if I were, I would probably lie about that too). I just took an improv class this summer.
When I first signed up for a class at Upright Citizens Brigade, I thought it would just be a fun break from what felt like the ceaseless monotony of intern life. I wanted to do something playful and physically active, while of course not actually doing anything physically active—I don't really enjoy the whole "feeling like your lungs are going to collapse" aspect of working out. Improv involved walking around on a stage, which was the perfect amount of strenuousness for me.
Walking into my first day of class, I realized how nervous I was. The closest I'd come to doing improv before this was showing up to seminars without having done the reading. Luckily, the room was small, and my classmates appeared to be friendly. My teacher, who looked equal parts muppet and man, began by telling us all to stand in a circle. He then proceeded to explain that improv only works if you trust your teammates and aren't afraid to look like an idiot. So, one by one, we were to stand in the center of a circle comprised of people we had never met, and sing the first minute of our favorite song. A Capella.
"And don't just sing it. Perform it—get into it. The people who look the stupidest in this exercise are the ones who think they're too cool to rock out."
So, that's how I found myself offending Eric Clapton with my rendition of "Layla" on a hot summer day in Hollywood. Tone deaf though I may be, there was something so freeing about jumping into a group of strangers and not being afraid to look stupid. I realized in that moment how much time I've spent in my life afraid that I'm going to look like an idiot. I've spent twenty years, (sorry, "twenty–three years" to the dudes who work the door at Smokes') being afraid of looking foolish that I let my cynicism become my personality .
Being cynical is like saying no to everything, which is a complete contrast to the central tenant of improv: saying yes. You can't say no to your scene partner; you can't deny the reality he or she establishes. For example, if your scene partner walks on stage and says, "Grandma, what are you doing with those whips and chains?" you have to accept that and run with it. You can't say, "I'm not your grandma," or "these aren't whips," or "Albert, I think you're off your meds again." You just have to say yes and go with that reality, something I never really learned the importance of before this summer.
So yes, I looked really stupid this summer when I was crawling around on the floor trying my very best to moo on key in a cow–chorus. I definitely looked stupid when I played the timeless role of "toddler who swears a lot when she gets drunk." And yes, I looked stupid when I had to somehow justify putting my hand on the knee of my scene partner (I thought he was playing my husband, he thought he was my dad—classic mixup). But I had so much fun looking stupid that I had to wonder whether the people who are confident enough not to worry about what everyone else thinks are really the ones who have it figured out. Maybe all I needed after years of being sarcastic, snarky, and honestly pretty unhappy, was to say yes a little bit more.