Why I’m Bad At Improv

This post was going to be about my experiments with yoga, and it was going to be funny, damn it, because I am uncoordinated and can’t take yoga-speak seriously, and these two things add up to hilarity! Instead, it’s going to be me trying to sort out why I have trouble with (acting, but maybe also a little bit musical) improv, because on paper I feel like I should be good at it – but I think the reasons I’m not tie into a lot of the things that hold me back in all aspects of performance.

First, the context: I’m doing an ongoing, kind of informal project that involves a small amount of improv. It’s a relatively low-stress setting; I’ve worked with some of the other actors and the director before. So there is no good reason for me to be sitting here having a minor anxiety attack over it, except for the fact that I think I’m bad at it. Or just not good at it yet. Maybe those aren’t the same thing, but they don’t feel different enough to matter in this moment.

On the surface, I feel like I have the building blocks to be good at improv. I’m a quick thinker. I’m insightful, I’m creative, I’m a natural-born storyteller. I’ve been making things up since I was old enough to invent three imaginary playmates. I’ve been acting since before I knew what acting was. I should be great at the “take an idea and run with it” part. I think I am decent at that part, actually.

What I’m bad at: humor, I think. This is ridiculous to me, because I remember times when my entire personality was constructed of ways to be subtly but constantly humorous. I’ve played spacey, sarcastic, self-deprecatingly awkward, and think I landed at some combination of all three as defense mechanisms. I’m pretty sure I have no actual sense of humor about myself; I’m stung when a friend teases, even gently. But I do have a sense of humor – I married my husband because he made me laugh every single day. I laugh at incredibly stupid and simple things, at the irony of everyday situations, at tiny humorous things that occur only to me, at random associations, and yes, at myself if I’ve noticed the humor first. I’m constantly, constantly amused by something – but I can’t find it and offer it to others. I couldn’t always explain if I wanted to; it rarely translates.

I think what I’m really bad at is focusing outward. I may be on the social end of true introverts, but I am very inward-looking to the point of possibly coming across as too wrapped up in myself. It’s not that I’m not interested in other people – I’m just usually so concerned with not doing anything stupid or weird or wrong that I don’t have that much attention to spare. And, frankly, if I’ve chosen to associate with someone, I already approve of them pretty much completely and am convinced that one poorly-chosen phrase will make them rethink their entire opinion of me. This is ridiculous, but it explains a lot. You can’t improv well when you’re so worried about what people will think that you’ve forgotten the audience and your scene partner. Or if you’re so worried about what your scene partner will think that you’ve forgotten you’re playing a game.

More outward; less self-conscious. This would, I think, solve 99% of my singing and acting problems. Unfortunately, short of alcoholism, I don’t see any direct way there. Have I said before that I understand why so many performers turn to substance abuse? I do understand that — beyond the arts simply attracting addictive personalities, It’s nice to give up the illusion of control for a while. I just wish we came equipped with a switch to turn it off when it’s getting in the way of… everything.


I’ve decided that I write too much about negative past experiences and use them to excuse/explain my fears about the present. It started off as the need to explain myself. To answer the inevitable thing that gets asked of me every time I open up a little – that’s hard enough on my ego, and it’s only my relentless drive to communicate something true to people that makes me do so at all. And maybe it was the image I wanted to present for a while. I wasn’t the person I’d imagined being, but maybe I could be the person who picked up and started over. There’s a kind of respect that goes along with that; people call it “brave” even (especially) when I radiate fear. Maybe it made me a little easier to relate to; gave me a common ground with some classmates who’d overcome various obstacles. It let me be honest when I came in and said, look, I have no freaking clue what I’m doing here but I really, really want to learn. This person, this persona – of the girl whose dreams broke her – has stopped serving me.  I don’t think it ever really did.

It’s true that I did and do have some things lingering around that were never addressed, because they couldn’t be then. And it’s true that I’m probably going to work through a lot of them here, because words are my thing. Writing is how I process, and the idea of readers keep me more or less honest, though I’m going to be selfish right now and say I’m not always blogging for you. Yes, I wanted to relate; I wanted to fill a gap that was missing for me – because I went searching months ago for someone like me and found that no one was writing exactly these experiences. It seemed a good enough reason.

But I also think I’m done apologizing for not doing things perfectly, and I think I’m done letting fear of failing (again) be an excuse. Excuses are boring. I’ve let myself think I’m unique because it’s kept me going, operating under the assumption that if I couldn’t stand out because of my talent, maybe I’d stand out because I’d overcome some obstacles. But my obstacles were never that unique, and most of what held me back was me. I let history become a reason to doubt my present reality.

I’m done with that. No one cares why I am where I am beyond an initial moment of curiosity. People care what I can do now, and all I can do is work on improving that. I have a lot more confidence than I let on, and maybe a lot less fear than I started with.

Fear never actually keeps you from falling, anyway. I refuse to let a few negative experiences define me. I refuse to let anything define me; I don’t know why I’ve been trying, myself.
ETA: I used the word “maybe” too many times in the first version of this post – I think I’m done with that, too.

Enough of That

More button-pushing.

I feel vaguely guilty about sometimes turning this blog into a bit of a downer, but that’s part of why I started it in the first place – I wanted to accurately chronicle all of the crazy ups and downs of this journey. I wanted people to eventually be able to stumble onto it and see something reflected in my experience that made them feel less completely awful and alone during the bad parts, as well as having someone to celebrate along with during the good parts. So in the interest of complete honesty: it has been a tough summer.

The music stuff is – I don’t even know. I’ve been on a mini-break for much of July because I’ve been focusing on some neglected areas of my life and trying for a little more balance. Something to anchor me when the music & theatre stuff is making me crazy.  And, yeah, I got a little bit scared. I’ve taken a big leap into something I wasn’t sure I was going to succeed at, have had a reasonable amount of success (and more importantly, rediscovered something I loved more than anything else) and have, for the most part, pushed ahead in spite of doubts and bad feelings. I won’t deny that it was a brave leap, but now I’m about to take a bigger one, and it’s scary. Transferring into a four-year program means I’ve made a commitment – and maybe I made that commitment in my heart a long time ago, but having it on paper is scary. Leaving the comfort zone I’ve found where I am is scary. Facing the possibility of being told, for the second time in my life, that I’m not good enough at this thing I love to pursue it any further is terrifying.  My successes feel so small when I step back and really take a look around me. I feel like I’m fooling myself – Imposter Syndrome in the extreme,  maybe, but it’s what I feel.

Earlier this week I spent several hours calling my high school, and the college from which I received my first degree, and later sitting in the Registar and Admissions offices of my current school, all to get them to acknowledge me as a student and release me with my certificate in December. Annoying to most people, but not something that ought to leave a person shaky and close to tears at the end of it.

I was appalled at my own reaction, but there was just something about sitting in that office that took me right back to sitting in another office ten years ago and explaining myself to unsupportive administrators who didn’t care about my reasons for failing all my classes. (Not that I could give them any good ones.) Or sitting in that same office and being told that I was, more or less, a bad person, a terrible student, “not the kind of student we want here” — for what? Having a few personal issues and getting some bad grades. Of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, I’m not sure why that’s the one that won’t leave me alone.

Having to call those same people up and ask them to send my transcript to current school was hard enough. But sitting there in current’s school’s admissions office and being asked questions in a tone that suggested I might be too stupid to answer them correctly was worse.  And once all of the preliminaries were sorted out, I still have to wait a week to see if my transcripts are deemed official enough, and if my credits will be approved. That’s not a given – my grades were not stellar my first time through, and the course names don’t make it incredibly clear that they meet current college’s requirement. It’s an English composition class, of all things – and I’m rumored to be good writer, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the rambling over-confessional quality of my blog. (That’s a style choice; I read too many carefully-crafted, well-edited blogs that barely scrape the surface of anything true.) I’ve gotten paid for it, anyway. I’ve taught it. But because of stupid administrative nonsense, I might have to retake it, and then that entire demoralizing afternoon was just time spent reminding me of past failures and how they’re still influencing my present.

I don’t know what the moral is here, guys. Usually I can figure out what I should take from my experiences, or how to put a positive spin on things. Right now I just want to throw my hands in the air and ask for a do-over on my life, and maybe for people to stop making assumptions about me, both positive and negative. Because, to be honest, all the positive ones feel like judgment, too. “You must be so smart/good at [thing]/have had a good reason for XYZ…/able to do all this other amazing stuff…”  No. Thinking too much of me just feels like expectation; like if you really knew me I’d be an enormous let-down.  I’m sorry I’m not that person, because heaven knows I’d like to be.