Mind Blown

There is a student in the Funny Bones intro class who is extremely nervous. This person is hysterically funny but can’t see it, and is always wanting to just watch because they “can’t do it” or will “mess it up”. I was trying to encourage them to play the other night and said something like, “You can’t mess it up. No matter what happens we’ll make it work. We’ll take care of you.”

Brain explosion.

 

That is basically the exact thing every improv teacher I’ve ever had has said to me at some point.

  • Relax
  • It’s fine
  • You’re fine
  • It’ll work out
  • Your class has your back

I never believed them any more than this person believed me last night. This person sat to the side and held themselves tightly and gave me scared rabbit eyes. Which made me feel a little sad for them.

Is this the way my teachers have felt about me when I’ve been freaking out?

I have this frame of reference now where I can see all the stuff they’re worried about and I can see how it’s not actually a big deal. I know that, yeah, OK, sometimes it’s going to be rough. Maybe really rough. This will probably not be the best improv ever done. But it will be fine, and sometimes brilliant. It’s going to be OK, but they can’t see that because of being right in the middle of it and being terrified half to death.

So, like I said, mind blown. I’ve only been doing this for two years but I can see from here that the things this person, five or so weeks in, is worried about are not things to be worried about. If they would relax it would be a lot more fun for them, and it would lead to better scenes.

Hello? Anna, are you listening? How is it that I never put that together until now? I’ve never felt like it was true, it always seemed to me that when teachers or experienced players would say “You’re doing fine, it’s good” it was overly optimistic, or just plain patronizing. No, it’s not. I can clearly tell that it’s crap.

Now I’m seeing it from the other side. When I say, “You’re fine” I don’t mean the improv being done is the best it’ll ever be, or the best ever in history. It’s just, it really is fine. They’re right where they should be, and none of us are thinking they’re behind or whatever, even though they do.

As soon as I said those words I had to stop and think about it. Hit me that hard, right between my improv eyes. Perspective is amazing. I want to take this revelation with me, somehow. But I don’t know how to remember that in the moment. How can I hold onto this knowledge that right now feels so intense and useful?

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Being Brave

The group I just started volunteering with, Funny Bones Improv, is holding a training class for people who want to volunteer, regardless of prior improv experience. It’s ten weeks long and folks can learn the basics of improv, the games we play, watch some of the shows, etc. and then start performing. Those of us who are already members are invited to come to the classes and participate, something I went to for the first time last night. It sounded like a great opportunity to get to know the new players, brush up on/learn games (since I’m really new and don’t know them all yet), and to just get in more improv time.

Some of the folks have acting, or even improv, experience. A few have none at all. So despite the fact I’ve only been doing this for a month, and improv for less than two years, one of them started asking me all these questions about improv and tips for games, wanting my experience. Being in this place of playing with people who see me as experienced, who are looking to me to lead the way and go first and be the brave one is such a weird feeling. I wanted to say, can’t you see I’m a fraud? I don’t know what I’m doing either.

I still feel so clumsy and slow and awkward when I’m on stage, almost all the time. If I’m with peers, or, heaven forbid, more experienced players, I tend to lock up and get nervous and feel like everything I’m doing is completely wrong. More than once I’ve gotten the note- “You didn’t speak”.

Yet, unexpectedly, last night was freeing. I was more brave. I did do more characters and space work. I did screw up more. It was really rather fun. Not that I was trying to be sloppy, I just enjoyed myself and when I messed up or got bumped out of a game it was great because now someone else got a turn.

For example- I caught myself talking in the first person some during Narrated Story last night, something I remember being told to do at ComedySportz in a similar game. I don’t think I ever did it there because I was too busy freaking out over all the things I was probably forgetting to do, worrying that I wasn’t telling the story right, and obsessing over the fact that my accent would be wrong and I’d probably change halfway through and ruin the entire thing.

Here’s a secret I learned- It’s fun. It’s goofy. And it helped the story to boot.

And as soon as I did it (in our 2nd try at the game) my classmates started doing it too. Suddenly they had permission. All night this happened. I did an accent, they did accents. I talked in the first person, they started talking in the first person. I mimed petting the lion or holding a box, they mimed holding things. It was an odd feeling. It also made me want to do more, try more, so they would too. To push my comfort zone so they would push theirs.

One night in a level one class and I have buckets of new insights into my play. I absolutely did not expect that.

So, I printed a book tonight

Tonight I printed out my book, working title is Temps, at Office Max. When the man helping me walked over I thought he had picked up a ream of paper to refill the machine. Then he sat it down in front of me and asked for my money. I stared at him, deer in the headlights.

 CAM00093

     My naive idea that it wouldn’t be too hard to do this thing was destroyed tonight. I knew it would be a lot of pages. I didn’t know it would be stack heavy enough to kill someone if I drop it on their head.

Juggling my improv balls

Last night at my musical improv class I was part of a scene that worked. I mean, it was funny and it held together and it was fun for everyone (me, partner, audience). It was one of those rare moments where everything falls together and it just is. It’s a great feeling. I think one of the reasons I’ve stuck with improv is that it can happen anytime at all, no warning, and yet there’s no way to make it happen. It’s always a gift.

In the past when I’ve had those moments, times that I’ve realized I actually just did decent work and it all came together and it was fun, there has been a feeling that I wasn’t making choices or thinking. I was just doing and it was right. And that’s remarkable and wonderful and intoxicating.

Last night, however, was different. My mind was moving fast. There was no sense of being out of control or of just going with it. Quite the opposite, in fact. I was making choices and thinking out options. “Oh, I need to match his character right now. A peg leg suits this scene. He’s just shown that’s dusty, I should sneeze. Dropping a coin down the hole will be funny but not distract from what he is saying.” On and on like that.

For me improv has always been one of two things. Sometimes, 95% of the time, my mind is spinning with all the things I need to do and tensing up in panic. Trying to keep all the improv balls in the air, trying to remember all the things I’m supposed to be doing to make this thing work, and knowing that I’m dropping things because I can’t keep watch on all of them at once.

About 4.95% of the time it is me deciding to ignore all those things and “be in the moment”, which tends to go even worse and leads to me ignoring my partners and being utterly boring and not making any choices. About .05% of the time are those rare scenes I mentioned before, where I’m actually in the moment and it all comes together without thought.

Having my mind going 90 to nothing and yet not being consumed by the thoughts was a weird experience. It’s hard to put into words. There was no self-consciousness, no sense of judging what I, or he, had done, and yet a complete awareness of it. There was no franticness to the scene, but it didn’t drag either. I felt like my mind was in two parts and one part was feeding ideas and choices to the other part, which did them.

I just realized as I was writing those words- this is the first time I’ve felt like I was juggling all the balls. Not all the improv balls there are, goodness. But all the ones I gave myself. I’ve been doing improv for 21 months now and I’ve been frustrated because I’ve yet to have that “ah ha” moment that comes along when you are learning a new skill and you suddenly realize you are doing it instead of thinking about doing it. I had that last night. For the first time I was holding onto a character (voice and posture both) and doing space work and adding to the scene and listening to my partner- and I was doing it all by making active choices yet not realizing in the moment that I was making them.

Dang.

Aside

Where are all the good ideas?

 

When someone says to me, “I don’t have any good ideas… I’m just not good at that,” I ask them, “Do you have any bad ideas?”

Nine times out of ten, the answer is no. Finding good ideas is surprisingly easy once you deal with the problem of finding bad ideas. All the creativity books in the world aren’t going to help you if you’re unwilling to have lousy, lame, and even dangerously bad ideas.

The resistance abhors bad ideas. It would rather have you freeze up and invent nothing than take a risk and have some portion of your output be laughable. Every creative person I know generates a slew of laughable ideas for every good one. Some people (like me) need to create two slews for every good one.

One way to become creative is to discipline yourself to generate bad ideas. The worse the better. Do it a lot and magically you’ll discover that some good ones slip through.

~Seth Godin, Linchpin

 

This applies to every creative area of my life. And yours too, I’d wager. I immediately thought of improv and of how very often I freeze on stage. I don’t know what to say, nothing in my head sounds right; I shuffle through eighteen different phrases and then I realize it’s been too long and now the pause is awkward. I will say nothing rather than risk saying the wrong thing.

But while I was typing up the paragraph I realized how many other areas of my life this applies to as well. Blogging, for one. How often do I lament that I can’t think of any good ideas for posts? (answer? Every day) Yet how often do I sit at the table and write 25 terrible ideas down, just to see if a good one slips in? Almost never.

It’s too scary. If I have a good idea then I have no reason to not write. And if I write I have to post. And if I post you can read it. And if you read it you might not like it, or might think it was a bad idea, or might criticize it, or might even laugh at me (meanly). And if you do those things I might go into a spiral of hysterics and never recover. So simply avoiding having ideas at all is a much less mentally and emotionally dangerous.

 

10 Greatest Things of 2011

I typically sit down and work on my goals list twice a year, using that time to review the last six months, but the review in December is always a little more in-depth. It has less to do with the January 1st craze and more to do with my birthday falling into that week between Christmas and New Year’s, I’ve found that turning a year older prompts me to consider my life more deeply and it just so happens that it occurs in conjunction with the new year.

Anyway, I’d already finished my new goals for 2012 before I read this post but I liked the questions he asked so much that I did the review anyway- they made me think. I’d recommend going through it now, especially if you didn’t take the time already to think about last year. For me, it’s not “making resolutions”, as I said, I set goals twice a year. But reviewing the previous year helps me to see what did and did not go well, and reveals if I am actually getting any closer to some of the big things I want to accomplish in life.

After doing the entire review I reread it and noticed something interesting. But we’ll come back after I show you the first question: The 10 Greatest Things That Happened To Me In 2011.

 

  1. Moved to Minnesota
  • This involved a Southern woman tackling a 1,500+ mile road trip in the snow, white-outs, a visit with good friends, and frostbite.
  1. Joined Sovereign Grace Church
  • First time I’ve been a member of a church since my teens, a scary/exciting step for me.
  1. Moved into an apartment with 2 awesome roommates
  1. Started a job at Bethany
  • Fear alert! This was/is the scariest job I’ve ever had. Also the hardest and yet most fun.
  1. Learned to knit
  • After a fashion. Things turn out, but they don’t always match the pictures.
  1. Saw my first improv show
  • It was an Improv-A-Go-Go show at HUGE, and it was not what I expected. Three of the four groups did not impress me and I likely wouldn’t have gone back if not for the fourth. So glad they were there!
  1. Learned to do the improvs
  1. Wrote a fictional story in my own voice
  • Yes! And it was fun! And I just got my first ever rejection letter when I tried to sell it! Now I feel like a real author.
  1. Payed Matt back all the money I owed him
  • It only took me 2 years…
  1. Went home for Christmas
  • And it was lovely to see my whole family in one together for the first time in a long time.

 

I was looking through that list when it struck me- I didn’t consciously put only things I actively did on there but that’s how it worked out.

The greatest things of 2011, the things I most enjoyed or that most changed my life, were all things I choose do to. None of them just happened to me; every one of the above items took effort and time, and most cost money to boot, which meant more time and effort to get said money. No one is going to hand me an awesome life. Do I receive gifts? Of course! All the time. And all of these things involved other people. But none of them would have happened if I hadn’t put effort in as well, in some cases a lot of effort (example- calluses from both knitting and writing so much).

My list of things to do this year is longer and more ambitious than last year, though tempered with the knowledge that life changes so quickly. Example? This time last year I was still living with my parents in TX, no job, no church, a ball of yarn that I couldn’t even get on the needles, and I’d never even considered going to watch an improv show. There’s no way I could have foreseen where I’d be now and some of the goals I set last year were derailed along the way.

That’s ok. I’d rather have goals and have to set them aside for more interesting things that come up than to wander aimlessly around and get very little done because I don’t know what I’m going after.

I urge y’all to go to this site and download his 2011 review, then take 30-60 minutes to fill it out. It’s well worth the time.

Baby steps to improv, Bob. Baby Steps.

I try to go to a local improv jam on Thursday nights. I can typically only go every other week due to having church small group two Thursdays a month, but I go when I can. It’s a good opportunity to practice being on stage and, perhaps more importantly, to practice failing miserably.

I haven’t been doing improv very long but I know enough to know that most of what happens at the jam is terrible. Really terrible. It’s a bunch of random people doing random things, selling each other out for a laugh and resorting to bathroom humor if a scene dying. Which is often. I have seen a few scenes that weren’t bad but they are few and far between. Anyway, getting up and being a part of that is hard, yet if I’m perfectly honest I know that if it wasn’t ok to be terrible I’d have no place there, I’m not yet good enough to play with the big kids. And as I said, it’s actually been very useful in learning to fail.

To fail and keep going takes practice. To say something stupid and then step up to talk again; to do something that doesn’t make any sense and then to do something else, knowing it probably won’t work either; to be terribly embarrassed and feel like the most awkward human being who has ever walked the earth and then step into another scene; to know before you get on the stage that you are going to beat on yourself on the way home and then get on the stage anyway- it’s great practice. Or the sign of a sick mind. I suppose you could argue that either way.

Last week I felt stupid and clumsy and unintelligent. I stammered and blanked-out and said really inane things. So, of course, I rewound all of what I did and scolded myself for it while I drove home and then I went to bed. The next day I was doing my morning pages and writing through all the stuff I’d done and how I felt about it (I’ve found that to be really helpful, once I’m away from the emotions of the moment. I look at what I did, good and bad, and I’ve started to find patterns.) when I had a revelation- I’d done stuff.

No, really. I’d done enough to have a long list of what I’d “done wrong”. The very first time I did the jam, back in the first week of November, I was so scared that I froze on stage and did not say a single word for the entire set.

Not one word.

30 minutes of standing on the backline staring at our five audience members. Yep. That wasn’t awkward at all. I remember the next time I went I forced myself to speak in one scene, but I didn’t say much. Just a line or two. This time, only two months later, I’m beating on myself for saying stupid things in every scene I did.

Hello? I said things! In scenes, plural. I stepped out in three scenes with no idea of what they would be about or what I would say. Yes, this is one of the main parts of improv but it’s a part I deeply struggle with. I’m a planner. I like plots. I like control. This is why I write, I can clean things up an polish them before anyone knows I’ve even written. So trusting the process and stepping out scares me to death.

I did it three times! Instead of beating myself up for the admittedly terrible improv I did, I need to focus on the fact that I did improv at all.

Baby steps, Bob. Baby steps.

Finding the game

I was watching Leno last week and he had Dana Carvey on the show. I was bored and tuning most of it out, Carvey was making a lot of political jokes that weren’t very funny and I was about to change the channel when something caught my eye.

They were playing a game. Not a traditional game, no chess pieces or cards. No, they were playing a game called “I’m going to do impersonations and you are going to pretend to try and cut me off and I’m going to walk over you but you don’t really mind”. And they played it beautifully. I never would have noticed that in the past. I would have thought Carvey was just being a jerk or whatever. But the body language between the two of them didn’t look like they were arguing, it looked like a tennis match. Leno would wait to the right moment to cut him off, Carvey would wait until Leno said just enough to be funny before starting again.

In improv one of the 1,000 things you are supposed to do simultaneously in the first 10 seconds is to “find the game”. I’m terrible at it. Apparently I set-up games and then don’t follow through on them, or I ignore games that other players offer me, I just don’t see them. I didn’t get what a game was, despite having been told, and shown, over and over and over. I catch on to some things sooooo slowly. But once I had my revelation during Leno I started looking for them on other shows and finding them all over the place. Finally it clicked!

Sitcoms are where I’m having the most success spotting them but they should be in dramas too. Every good scene should have one. I saw less than one minute of a muted Andy Griffith Show episode and still found the game between him and Barney, it was completely physical. Barney was playing the “for every three feet you get me to walk I’m going to step back a foot and turn, shaking my head” game. It was just that measured once I was looking for it and didn’t any dialogue to distract me. And then the example above was from an interview. I don’t know how often they come up in situations like that, I suspect it’s most likely when he’s interviewing a comedian or actor, less so if it’s a political figure or an athlete. Someone who, like me, would complete miss the offer.

Now I’m looking forward to my next practice, see if I do better at this. Even if I’m still too distracted by everything else going on to play the game I at least understand what I’m looking for now!

2012

This is going to be an exciting year! Admittedly, most every year of my life is exciting but I’m extra pumped for this one. Last year was a year of major changes and I am continuing to follow through on them this year.A few of my favorite memories form last year-

  • Moved 1,500 miles, from TX to MN
  • Learned to knit
  • Wrote a short story I’m actually happy with
  • Discovered improv
  • Got my teeth fixed
  • Joined a church

Most of those carry over to this year as well. I’m not planning to move again this year, I miss the South on a regular basis, especially New Orleans, but MN is my home for now. It’ll be weird to stay in one place for more than a year but I’m going to give it a try.

My knitting is coming along nicely but I’m not very good at finishing projects. And unfinished projects are useless, so I want to focus on getting things done. I got a drop spindle for my birthday from my folks so a goal for this year is to learn to spin yarn. We’ll see how that goes.

I have several more short stories in the works, at various stages of completion. I’ve dug out a couple I started in the past and I’m attempting to finish them. Again, I’d like to work on completing things instead of just starting them and moving on. My ADD side hates that, I love to dabble but sometimes I need to finish what I start. And a few of these old stories have good bones, they just need to be finished.

Improv. What to say? Improv was the number one surprise of the year, and possibly the highlight. I saw my first show in March, having NO idea of what to expect and hated ¾s of it. But the ¼ I didn’t hate captured my imagination and sparked this crazy passion I now have. I signed up for my first class, started in April, as something fun to try but with no thought of ever doing anything more with it. It has turned into so much more, and I love it. Expect to see a lot of posts this year about improv and what I’m learning through it.

My teeth were a big deal. I broke a notch out of my front two when I was in elementary school. They’d been broken so long that when I finally got them fixed this summer I felt shy and hesitant, convinced they were too big. They certainty felt too big! Now I’ve adjusted to them and love them, it’s amazing how such a tiny thing can have such a massive impact on my self-image. Seriously, I’ve spent my entire life smiling in a way to ensure that they didn’t show. Now when I smile in a picture I try to remember to not do that, and I feel like a different person. This spring I’m supposed to have all 4 wisdom teeth taken out, something I’m not looking forward to in the least. And then we’ll talk about braces. I’m still on the fence about those.

I joined Sovereign Grace Community Church this summer. First time I’ve been a member of a church since my teens. Sometimes it still feels weird but it’s a good weird. I’ve had to adjust to people caring about me and noticing if I’m there or not. Honestly, the first few times someone asked why I’d missed church the week before it made me angry. It’s none of their business. But God has been showing me that it’s OK to let people see me, to notice me. It’s part of being in community. Not an easy part for me, Ms Independent to the extreme, but it’s a lesson I need to learn.

I have a lot of big goals for this year, crazy ones. Sometimes I look at them and I look at how many hours are in a week and I shake my head. Still, I’ve wasted a lot of time in my life and I don’t want to look back at 2012 and see the same pattern. I want to do stuff!

So…

What did you do last year that changed your life?

What are you doing this year to change it even more?

Imagination Dogs

Seth Godin stepped on my toes last week. Talker’s Block. Go read that link right now.Ouch.

I know he’s undoubtedly onto something here- I’ve been doing Morning Pages for 2 months now, 3 pages every freakin’ day before I even get dressed, and I have to say that I’m already getting into a groove and not getting stuck like I was. Not that it’s easy most days. I can think of 150 things to do with that 30-45 minutes while I sit there, it takes stubbornness to keep my butt in the chair. It’s worth it though, so very worth it.I have been thinking about writer’s block a lot lately because I have a lot to say but when  I  go to say it nothing happens, I leave with a blank screen. Short stories stay in my head because I can’t seem to get them onto the page, nothing sounds right. I’ve heard the advice to just write, whatever. I’ll claim to do that but I don’t really- the voice in my head is tricky and it says, “I’ll pretend this is free flowing but secretly I’ll plan it so it’s witty and fun when it comes out”. Which never works. Improv has started calling me on that game. I can try to be smart and plan things out while I stand on the sides, but as soon as I step onto the stage the person I’m working with will fail to receive my telepathic signals that I have this great trash truck idea all worked out and will start yelling for me to rescue his hamster out from between the couch cushions. Busted, and now scrambling to catch-up.

I am attempting to switch that over into my writing and it works both beautifully and terribly. Terribly because it’s some of the worst writing I’ve ever done. Beautifully because it’s by far the best writing I’ve ever done.

Apparently good writing is like having these little imagination dogs living in my head. I feed them ideas and books and adventures and then they produce writing and leave little piles of it scattered around in my mind for me to put down on paper. Piles of imagination dog crap, with itty bitty gold flakes mixed in. The more crap I collect, and write down, the more gold flakes I get; but also the more crap I have to write down and then deal with. That’s one reason I now have a pile of legal pads by my desk, pages filled with inane ramblings and disjointed, repetitive thoughts. Getting out the crap.

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