in Improvisation

Improv and Life: On Fear

I’m in the final stretch of my improv education. In a few week’s I’ll graduate out of the 5-level program at Finest City Improv.

I’ll continue to learn, of course, but this seems as good a time as any to reflect on my experiences learning and performing improv for the last ten months.

It All Comes Down to Fear

When you enroll in Level 1, the instructor’s goal is to get you to play again. Act like a kid, make silly noises, be goofy, release the judging mind.

Levels 2-4 are about learning “the rules,” those nebulous things that seem to make an improv scene good or bad.

Some of these rules are:

  • Don’t ask questions
  • Don’t create unnecessary conflict
  • Don’t do transaction scenes
  • Say “Yes, and…”
  • Support your scene partner

And so on. There are probably dozens of them.

Being the analytical person that I am, I loved these rules. They helped me structure and make sense of this nebulous art form in my head, so I could know if I was doing it “right” or “wrong.”

My experiences in Level 5 have taught me that almost none of these rules matter. At least, they’re not the real reason that an improv scene is good or bad.

It all comes down to fear.

In his book, Improvise: Scene from the Inside OutMick Napier points out that breaking these rules don’t always lead to bad scenes. And following them don’t always lead to good scenes. Therefore, they must be correlated with the goodness or badness of a scene, but not causative.

He makes the claim that our own fears are what create bad tendencies on stage and ultimately cause bad scenes.

I was doing a scene with my classmate where we were both DJs who were amped up on our beat-making skills. Here are a few lines of dialogue with my inner monologue:

Her: Dude, the bassline you dropped on that latest beat was straight flame!

Me: I know, right? Sometimes I actually get scared about how fire my beats are.

My inner monologue, “OK, I agreed, but I didn’t really add much. What can I do to further the scene?”

Me: You know, Trey, I gotta be honest…your beats haven’t been that fire lately. I don’t like them…

My inner monologue, “Shit. I just started an argument for no reason.” I then get side-coached by my teacher: “Don’t start fighting!”

Me: I don’t like your beats…I fucking LOVE them. You absolutely melted the club last night, they had to mop up literal human tissue, that’s how fire you were brother!

If we’d gone down the “I don’t like your beats…” thread, the scene would have petered out into a debate about beat-making that would have gone nowhere, most likely.

But notice that starting an argument wasn’t what caused the scene to take a turn. It was my fear. My fear of not saying something “good enough” made me panic and reach for something, and that something was an argument.

Unless you’ve been genetically engineered to perform, you’ve got an instinctual fear response to performing on stage in front of people while making stuff up off the top of your head. If you give in to that fear response, you’ll create scenes that are less fun than they could be if you let go of your judging mind and simply created.

You seem to follow all of “the rules” of improv when you let go of fear. And if you break one, it probably made the scene better.