Insides Out: Vulnerability in Improv

We had been a couple for the entire school year. He was on the football team and I was a cheerleader. It was the beginning of summer vacation and we were at the beach basking in the glow of our shared memories of the past year. As Bob reminded me of the times we’d shared, I felt warm, complete and optimistic about our future. Then, Bob softly turned to me and said “I think we should break up.”

The needle skipped across the record in my head. My hearing got muffled.

I coolly responded with, “Well, that’s too bad because I was really hoping you’d want to go steady with me and the other guys.”

Now it was Bob’s turn to look totally “What???-struck. You’re dating the other guys on the team?” Bob asked incredulously.

“Yes, we’re all…like…a couple. I was going to ask if you would go steady with us,” I said. Just then, Jack, Brian, and Billy showed up. Bob saw all of us together with intertwined arms, did a quick calculation and said, “Sounds good to me!”

With that, the scene ended.

I was new to Improv Marin and had never taken improv classes before. I reacted to being dumped with my typical, “You-can’t-and-will-never- hurt-me-in-fact-this-may-be-funny” response. It wasn’t on purpose. It was on habit. There’s a well-traveled neural superhighway in my brain that bypasses all the hurting exits and goes straight to funny. Humor keeps things smooth and light. Humor is a vulnerability patch. And, if improv is about humor, then improv and my natural tendencies are a perfect match. Right?

In the months that have followed that scene, our coach, Drew has been encouraging me to have the obvious reaction. Obvious reactions make you relatable to the audience. And if the audience relates to you, they empathize with you, are rooting for you and are invested in the outcome. Obvious reactions set your scene partner up for success. Obvious reactions are great and can lead to a lot of fun! But, seriously, what’s an obvious reaction?

To train myself to observe the obvious, I’m going to slow down. Reach into my inner world. Rather than racing around a pothole in the interaction, I will notice it, call it out, name it. Remain curious. If something hurts, I will show it. I’ll try to stay for a minute, accept it and see where it leads. If someone has a big reaction, I’ll respond to it and not downplay it like it never happened. And because this is improv, I’m going to trust that my partner will accept my offers and add to them. By the end, it will either be authentic, humorous or with any luck, both.

© 2019 Joy Lanzaro Joy Lanzaro is an Improv Marin community member and professional mediator. She believes it can be good to show vulnerability: except while horseback riding, when you should definitely wear a helmet.

Drew Meritvulnerability, improv