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.

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