Shake Off the Nerves, It’s Showtime

I was equal parts nervous and excited about the class show. I perform in a musical context much more often than in a theatrical one; and often, I wake up the morning of the gig totally freaking out and wondering why I ever thought I could play in front of an audience. Unexpectedly, when I woke up the morning of our class show, I felt relatively calm. I went to work, managed to not drink a single beer at my office Christmas party (I wanted my brain to be at its top processing capacity), and was feeling good, even when I walked into the theater. We did our warm-ups, which included a rousing and spirited game of Samurai (a game where we pretend to cut each other down with swords, involving a lot of yelling and throwing of imaginary weapons). With my family in the lobby area, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through their heads as they heard the sounds of violent death echoing through the theater.

Our class was split into two teams (my team was “Taco Bar, Attack!”) and Karen taught each team a new warm-up game. We stood in a circle with our arms around each other, closed our eyes, and tried to count to twenty, one person at time. If we talked over each other, we had to begin again, and we couldn’t say numbers in the order in which we were standing; we had to jump around the circle. As we were playing that game, I realized how much improv is not about me. All of my anxiety up until that point had centered on myself–how would feel onstage, and what ideas I would come up with. But I realized in the circle that whether I did a good job or a not so good one, my individual performance didn’t matter that much at all. What’s important are the relationships you form on stage and how your character interacts with your partner’s character.

I felt good right up until we were called onstage. When we walked out, I saw a lot of more seasoned improvisers, a few of whom I knew already, and that’s when I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into. At that moment, it didn’t feel supportive to have the whole community there—it felt terrifying. However, as we began the warm-up scenes, I started to feel good and to stop worrying. I even began to feel peaceful onstage, and I felt my team members relax too. The audience was great—they were supportive in their suggestions, they laughed a lot and applauded us after every scene. Every time the audience laughed at something I said, I could hardly believe it was happening. “Me? Seriously? They’re laughing at me?” I’ve never been the class clown or the funny friend, so it was extremely satisfying to be able to make people laugh.

My favorite moment from the performance was a scene I did with Russ. It was a warm-up scene and the prompt was “old married couple.” We walked onto the stage and made eye contact. Russ changed his face to look unhappy and disapproving, and in reaction I started to hunch over and make an old, cranky face back. My facial expression and posture made Russ change his posture to match mine. As we began talking, it truly felt like we were reacting to each other, and discovering ourselves and each other’s characters. I thought to myself, “This is improv. This is how it’s supposed to be.” It felt so organic, and the scene was entirely about our team work.

After the show, a few of us went out for the promised margarita. I’m sad to see this class end, but I’m already looking forward to Level Two in March!

-Jillian McCarthy

Comedy in the Absurd and Class Show Prep

Throughout the last eight weeks, there has been a series of highs and lows. There were moments where I felt a click and thought, “Aha! I get it!” Then, the next week, I found it difficult to think of anything interesting and thought that I hadn’t made much progress at all. After last week’s click during the monologue deconstructions, this week’s class felt easier the whole time. As always, there were better and worse scenes, but on the whole, I felt more comfortable and that my ideas were better than they have been in the past.

There’s so much that goes into making a great scene; sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on what happened, but you know that it was something brilliant. In some scenes, it’s as simple as “poop.” To me, a poop joke is the quickest way to my comedic heart. However, this week I think we overused poop just a turd—oh, excuse me—a tad. And here, I continue to do it! In other scenes, for most of the dialogue, the situation seems relatively normal; then the last line turns everything on its head, leading to hilarity. These twists and turns often elicit raucous laughter. In some scenes, the story line that’s happening is so absurd that you can’t help but laugh. In these kinds of scenes, even if the players are doing something completely normal, their acting normal in the context of absurdity is funny.

I’m nervous about the class show, but also excited. It’s a strange experience to try to prepare yourself mentally for a performance that you can’t prepare for in any other way. I guess one solution is to watch a lot of improv or to practice with your team. But in terms of personal preparation, as in accepting the fact that in a week’s time you will walk onto a stage with absolutely no idea of what you’re going to do once you get there, it’s a trickier task. I have no idea how I will react under the new condition of having an audience present. Will our team dynamic change? What if I’m on stage and absolutely nothing comes into my head? From what I’ve learned throughout this class, improv isn’t ultimately about any one person’s performance, at least when you’re part of a team. It’s about communicating and supporting each other. However, that’s an easy thing to forget when you’re faced with the performance anxiety of improvising in front of an audience.

Whether the show goes well or not so well, at least there’s a team margarita with my name on it afterwards.

-Jillian McCarthy

Finding Inspiration with Monologue Deconstruction

Similar to last week’s class, I was frustrated with myself for not thinking of funnier punch lines or interesting ideas throughout the majority of class. I didn’t have any new ideas at all.  It seems crazy to say that because I have twenty-two years of life experience to draw from, and yet, when I walked onstage, all I could think about were scenes that people had already done.

Everything changed when we began to do monologue deconstructions, which will be the format of our class show. In a monologue deconstruction, the audience provides a word to inspire the improvisers. Someone tells a real-life story based on the word that might be funny, but doesn’t have to be. Then, three scenes are performed in response to the monologue. After the three scenes, another monologue is performed, and the whole process repeats three times.

I find it a lot easier to do scenes in the context of a monologue deconstruction than in warm-ups. I’m not sure why, but I feel more comfortable and energetic when the scenes are in response to a monologue, rather then when every scene starts new. During that part of class, trust began to develop between me and the other members of my team, which led to an improvement in our collective performance. When one person walks onstage to do a scene, someone else walks out to support the first person. That means that when you walk out with an idea, you have to trust that someone will meet you, support you, and provide their own ideas. That trust seems to create better and more interesting scenes, and it made me feel more comfortable with my teammates. The difference between how I felt at the beginning of class and how I felt during the monologue deconstruction was surprising, and it seemed that time and my brain slowed down, leaving me ample time to think of something interesting to say. There was another “aha!” moment where I felt comfortable and started to enjoy myself onstage without worrying about future scenes and how they would go.

It’s hard to believe that next week is our last class, and that in two weeks we’ll perform our new skills for an audience. With the comfort and trust that’s developing in our teams, I’m not as nervous as I was the first day of class, when the class show seemed like a terrifying and insurmountable challenge. I’m even getting a little bit excited.

-Jillian McCarthy