Improv and the Risks Worth Taking

Drew, one of the coaches at Improv Marin, often points out that it takes courage to come to your first improv class. I agree and would add that it might take even more courage to return for a second class.

At least, that’s how it was for me.

I began taking improv courses because I had moved to Chicago by myself. I didn’t know anyone, and I dreaded the prospect of spending Friday evenings alone in my small, dark studio apartment (which the building’s janitor, equipped with a key, seemed to think of as his own). So, I signed up for a beginning improv class at Second City.

I remember before that first class, sitting awkwardly and silently in the classroom with the rest of the Level A students, waiting for the teacher to arrive. At some point I simply blurted out, “I’m (bleeping) terrified.”

We spent three hours performing silent exercises in pairs, doing things like making letters of the alphabet using our bodies and killing each other with imaginary samurai swords. It was weird and I hated it, though in retrospect, maybe it is good to not enjoy pretending to kill people.

The experience was so strange and uncomfortable that I did not particularly want to go back. When I recounted the experience to my aunt, who is an expert pep talk-giver, she encouraged me not to give up on improv. Besides, I had paid in advance for eight non-refundable classes. I returned, the classes soon became fun, and my classmates soon became friends. A path was set: one that, once I moved back to California, would eventually lead me to Improv Marin.

Strangely, though, I had a similar initial reaction to the Improv Marin classes as I had to the Second City classes: intense fear and discomfort. I didn’t anticipate this. I had improvised for a couple of years by then. I was no expert, but I felt like I had some sort of foundation with improv. But now the games were new, and the people were new, and I struggled.

After that first Improv Marin class, I wasn’t sure I’d go back. In fact, the second time I made my way to class, I passed by the parking lot and drove around the block, trying to decide whether to go back to home. Maybe I’d go see a movie instead.

But because of my Chicago experience, I had faith that if I pushed myself to go, things would not only get eaiser, they would become fun. And once both the games and the people became familiar, they did.

I have given a lot of thought as to why going from Second City to Improv Marin felt so difficult. I believe it was in part because I had fallen into an improv rut while in Chicago. I had become too comfortable in my improv habits. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to challenge myself: it just never occurred to me to do so.

If I’m honest, I prefer feeling comfortable. I’d rather, for instance, come out on stage as myself, versus coming out as a character. Reader, I am not good at playing characters.

And yet, at a recent show, I decided that what a certain scene needed was for Snoop Dogg to come out on stage and join two of his adoring fans. I thought to myself before I walked on, “You don’t even remember what Snoop Dogg looks like, how he talks, what he says…You are terrible at playing characters. What are you even thinking—”

But I interrupted that voice and walked out on stage anyway. It was no stellar performance, but I was proud of myself for taking that risk.

Of course, there are risks to avoid…. Let’s just say, completely hypothetically, you were in an improv show in which you played Snoop Dogg, and in that show, while wearing a dress, you sat down and manspreaded your legs. And then when you watched the performance later, you realize that maybe manspreading while wearing a dress isn’t a great idea. Yes, taking risks in improv is great. But you know what else is great? Leggings. Some risks aren’t worth taking.

© 2019 Kate James
Kate James is not to be confused with the other Kate James who also used to improvise in Chicago and now also lives in California.