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Girl Talk: How Taking Improv Classes Changed My Life

If you are anything like me, you are probably very skeptical when someone utters the words “changed my life.” I mean, this is the phraseology of infomercials—of people trying desperately to convince you that you need a colander that hooks onto your sink or a $14.95 bib to prevent you from spilling coffee on your shirt. Taking yoga classes? Downward dog feels nice, but it certainly didn’t change my life. Getting an iPod? Allowed me to dump an entire bookshelf of CDs, but again my life stayed relatively the same. Buying a Mason Pearson brush? Well, I just felt silly for plunking down more than a hundo to get the tangles out of my hair. And who says that I want my life to change, anyway? Maybe I’m happy with it just the way it is!

Well, the day after Thanksgiving last year, I couldn’t say that was true. I can’t precisely pinpoint what it was, but I had an inescapable feeling that something in my life needed shaking up.

Somewhere in that realm of being a preteen girl—when you start to realize that you aren’t as talented as someone else, or that you don’t look a certain way, or that something you love isn’t technically “cool”—I stopped wanting attention.

I also can’t precisely pinpoint why I decided that taking improv classes was the brand of shaking up I needed. Maybe it’s that I always loved “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” or that every time I’d gone to a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade or the Peoples Improv Theater, I felt myself marveling at the ease with which the performers created scripts on the fly. I loved the absurdist turns things took.

But it was about more than that, too. Frankly, the idea of performing—in front of people!—has always terrified me. This would be why I’m a writer. I didn’t do school plays for a reason. I even dropped out of middle school band because the pressure of being fourth chair clarinet was too much. Still, public speaking felt like a more faceable fear than say, jumping out of an airplane strapped to some stoner named Ted who’d tell me to relax and “ride the air.” Plus, facing my fear of performing had practical applications—writers often do readings and Q&A panels, two things I’ve never been totally at ease with.

Then there was the social aspect. I was feeling a little frustrated with how so many of my close friendships had gone from constant hanging out (“Whattchu up to tonight?”) to sporadic catch-up sessions (“I think I could dinner three weeks from tonight. No, make that four weeks from Wednesday.”) I felt myself missing the ease with which you make friends in a school environment and wanting some new blood in my life.

My knees knocked together with nerves as I walked into my “Level 1: Intro to Improv” class at The PIT in New York City. I felt like I had downed three cups of coffee, when in reality, I’d had none. As I opened the door, a bunch of faces turned and looked at me. The feeling in the room was sedate—I definitely was not the only nervous one there. I panicked that maybe I’d come to the wrong place to crack myself out of my shell.

By the end of the class, we were rolling around on the floor, pantomiming walking a cat and making sculptures out of butter. I was in love.

Week after week, I went to class as our teacher had us do more exercises to get us to switch off our brains, forget logic, stop judging ourselves, and just go with whatever. After five or so classes, I could feel myself getting more comfortable doing scenes. I stopped thinking What am I going to do? before stepping on stage. I stopped worrying Is this line going to be funny? and just spat it out. It took a while to eliminate the fear of saying something stupid, but eventually you get better at it. The weirder the thing you say, the better the scene.

Quickly, these lessons began to trickle into my real, out-of-class life. I explain it as this: Taking improv let me turn off my internal censor. See, the real me is a complete goofball who does interpretive dances, laughs uncontrollably at “I just flew in from Detroit and boy are my arms tired” caliber jokes, and makes up nonsense words to use as if they’re real. But for some reason, I don’t always feel comfortable showing that to people. At work, I tend to be serious, shying away from goofing off so my superiors see me as a hard worker. Even with friends, I sometimes feel pressure to be a person who says insightful, intelligent things. Getting rid of my internal censor has let me interact so much more authentically with my friends, family members, even the guy making my sandwich at Subway. Sure, I still reign in the goofy at times. But I feel so much more like … myself.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when people describe falling in love, they often say they can “just be goofy” with someone. There is something so special about being able to show your true self, weirdness included. Taking improv has made me realize that most of the judgment I experience in a day is coming from myself. Realizing that has put me more at ease when I walk into a room and made me more comfortable striking up conversations with complete strangers. The number one rule of improv is that you “yes and” things. Whatever someone does or says, you go with it and add to it, rather than deny it. Taking improv classes has showed me how much we “no” things in real life—how we put up stops, how we jockey for control. That realization helped me to “yes” a guy I met a millisecond after I started classes. That relationship has been so much better than I could have imagined.

I had my Level 1 graduation show back in January. Afterward, as I greeted my parents, my dad said, “It’s so good to see you perform again.” I realized that the story I told myself—that I’m too scared to be on stage, that I am a writer versus a performer—is patently untrue. When I was kid, I loved performing. In almost any picture you see of me between the ages four to 10, I am in an Annie wig, belting out the chorus to “Tomorrow.” In almost every home video, I am making up a song and dance—about a moth, about papier-mâché—and my little sister, because she wasn’t old enough to realize it was utter nonsense, joined in.

It’s not that I never liked performing—it’s that at some point, I learned not to.

Somewhere in that realm of being a preteen girl—when you start to realize that you aren’t as talented as someone else, or that you don’t look a certain way, or that something you love isn’t technically “cool”—I stopped wanting attention.

It’s been so good to reconnect to my inner total ham.

Monday night, I had my Level 2 graduation show. As my class stood backstage with a huge knot of nervousness in my stomach, I said to my teacher, “I can’t believe that we pay to have this feeling.”

“No,” he said, getting an au contraire, grasshopper look on his face. “You pay for the feeling you get after the show.”

It’s funny how distinctly you remember that moment where your group runs on stage. Because the show itself is a blur. I know that we did some funny scenes that got big laughs from the sold out audience. Some I remember: Two roommates who talked out their issues by climbing out the window and standing on the ledge. A wife who cooked for her husband every time she wanted to nag him to the point where he weighed 250 pounds. A warlock in a forest who yelled “cockblocker” every time someone stopped him from luring a girl into his lair. We finished in a flurry of high fives.

My teacher was so right—it is about that feeling you get as you walk off stage. That feeling that you beat the adrenaline surge. That feeling of putting your trust in others and having them affirm to you that they deserved it. That feeling that you can face any fear and come out okay.

I hope to keep on “yes-ing,” both on stage and in real life.

Photo: iStockphoto/ThinkStock

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