Arguably, it was a good night. I was in a show that went really well. I came up with a few characters that enhanced the show. I played the characters that made people laugh.
And yet, all my choices were safe ones. I did not push myself. I did not live up to the spirit of improv. I felt so ashamed after the show (because I know how much everyone else pushed themselves), I could not even bring myself to stay for the following show and to go for drinks afterwards.
I was walking to the theatre this afternoon for the improv show and was hoping that solo scenes would not be a part of it. In improv we sometimes use a competition-like format. It is not a competition in a sports sense but rather a way to facilitate it for the audience to invest themselves in the show and connect to the characters on stage. In any competition there are winners and losers but on stage we all support each other. The real competition is always against self in the constant strife to get better and to do a good show. That said, nobody likes to lose spectacularly which is my track record with solo scenes. OK, so it is was a track record of one but, oh, what a disastrous one!
So as I was getting closer to the theatre, an anticipation of the rush of being on stage has set in and I stopped dreading the possibility of facing my nemesis. Or rather being inside my nemesis? Well, you know what I mean.
As the “competition” progressed and other players left the show (no, it is not like wrestling – we do not determine winners or losers; it is all improvised) it was down to three players including yours truly. If you thinking “Oh my god! The last round is going to involve solo scenes!”, you are correct! Of course, being a much more experienced improviser than I was the last time I had a lot more tools in my improv belt. Of course, having gone through the emotional rollercoaster of the last three months, I felt about as sure of myself as a eunuch in a whorehouse. I have about zero self-assurance. In my time as an improviser, I had numerous opportunities to train with some amazing artists. I chose to put my trust in their craft and in what they have taught me. Without thinking that it was all on me, I was able to relax and pull together a pretty amazing scene that the audience loved. I did not end up winning the show but I came in second and that was my best showing so far. Afterwards, fellow improvisers came up to congratulate me and tell me how much they loved my solo scene. It was a success.
And yet, it was a success that still felt empty, for She was not with me. She will never know what happened tonight. In the end, win or lose, every success feels like a loss for I have lost Her.
So as part of my super busy week, I am taking a number of improv workshops. One in particular has really resonated with me. It was rooted in a number of emotional acting techniques, such as those pioneered by Lee Strasberg, Meisner, and Stanislavsky.
One of the exercises consisted of two improvisers on stage acting out an emotion. No words – sounds and body language only. Of course, the one I got was love. I got through it without getting too weird. I think.
And then, as they say, shit got real. We did a Strassberg exercise called 12345. The idea is that all you can say is 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 in any combination or order. The actual message is emotional: the improvisor has to tap into his own feelings and emotions and bring that out. But because the actual text is just digits which allows the improvisor to think of something that he/she feels safe and comfortable to unload whatever was weighing on their souls.
So I unburdened myself. It felt liberating, cathartic even. After the workshop, a feeling of easiness and warm energy filled my core. It did not last for the whole day. But it felt good and positive to do that. Even though I have been doing a writing equivalent of this here for the past two months, doing a vocal exercise gave me an extra dimension of the sharing experience.
Not sure what this will mean for the future but I’m interested to keep finding out.
This morning, as I was talking to my Mind Technician (that is how he likes to think of himself), he said something that made me sit back and go:
We were discussing my established patterns of thinking negatively. In the cognitive behavioural therapy, there is a thing called “cognitive distortions.” These are perverted cognitive processes that negatively distort the thinking. There are 10 of those buggers though my “go to favourites” seem to be Overgeneralisation (viewing a negative event as a never ending pattern of defeat) and Emotional Reasoning (assuming that negative emotions necessarily reflect the reality: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”). So basically whenever something bad or negative happens, I start cursing and putting down myself for all sorts of things. In fact, I sometimes manage to do this when something positive happens if I find that I did not do well enough. So the doc suggested that I do not automatically trust my thinking since it seems to be so negatively predisposed against myself.
That set off a minor inner explosion. This is precisely what has been plaguing my improv performances. I need to stop thinking or relying on my ideas for scenes because my thinking has been damaged by years of self-neglect and self-hate. And nobody wants to see that on stage! So for the next while what I need to do instead is go in with an emotional choice rather than a cognitive one. Maybe even pair it with a statement (e.g., “Oranges are awesome!”) and figure out the rest along the way and trust my scene partners to support me. (Improvisation – what a concept!) There is nothing inherently wrong with making a cognitive choice for a scene (e.g., “Three rabbits are discussing forest gossip”) but, for the moment, it is not the right way for me. Thinking triggers more thinking and in my case it is all negative.
In my recent post on getting back into improv, I have discussed getting bogged down in my mind and forgetting one of the cardinal rules of improv: play and have fun. I need to get back to being playful and emotional. Also, in my case, I should probably stick to positive emotions for awhile. Not too long ago, Joe Friedman (thetalkingtherapist)commented on my post Being Funny saying that I might not be funny for awhile but that I might get deeper. Let us hope so. The reason audiences care about the characters on stage is because they connect with them. If I manage to become more emotionally moving on stage, that can only improve the overall experience for the spectators and for myself and maybe help me discover more of my true self through that experience.
For the first time in quite some time, there is actually something to look forward to in my life.
Last night was, what may have been, my return to improv. I hosted an earlier show and that went extremely well. My own show, however, was not as successful.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 and so looking back on things I realise what I mostly did wrong. I have previously posted on the rules of improv. Well, I forgot one of them: play and have fun. I have been so wrapped up in my own misery that I simply did not remember to relax and enjoy being silly.
It is also clear that I have not been applying this rule to life as well. I have got to learn to play the game in life and not take things so goddamn serous.
I am doing another show in a few weeks and will, hopefully, remember to abandon the seriousness and just be in the moment.
Oh, boy. 30 days in. If I had been trying to stay sober, I would be getting a chip. Instead I get to think about how depressed I still am. There is no achievement, no medal, no badge of honour. I just get to carry on being a miserable fuck.
There is a certain calm in knowing exactly the way things stand and I have done a somewhat decent job of admitting there is a problem and being open about my feelings. Except that tonight I am going to have to act the hell out of pretending that I am happy and riding high. First, I get to host a show and then I am supposed to improvise in one. To say that feelings of anxiousness, misery and fears of inadequacy are rather overwhelming at the moment would be an understatement of the century. The good thing is that I get to warm up and get in the mood by hosting an earlier show and also because this is theatre. I do not have to be funny but I do have to do a good job of building the story. I suppose it is the same in life.
So this is a bit of an aside from my usual topic but I simply cannot pass this up. This is Patrick Stewart – who is quite possibly high in this video – teaching his 35-year-old fiancée about the finer points of comedic acting. I suppose this is one of those rare sneaky peeks we get to have in the private lives of these larger than life people we see on screen or on stage.
Note how the tile talks about a “healthier life” not a happier one. There is a reason for that but more about it later. As previously mentioned, one of my obsessions – that arose from trying to distract myself from the fact that I have been depressed for the past 20 years or so – has been improv, otherwise also known as improvisational theatre. There are a number of resources and articles out there denoting an important relationship and similarity between therapy and improv, as well as between improv and life in general, including The Way of Improvisation by a Canadian improviser Dave Morris.
Discovering improv (purely by accident) has allowed me to better deal with my problems. And although it has delayed my most recent meltdown which finally made me seek professional help, it has also made me more aware of my life, my world, and my problems. In fact, the speed with which I went out searching for therapy can be directly credited to improv for making me more self-aware.
As one can easily deduct not only from my current situation but from life in general, knowing the recipe to better life and being able to live it are two different things. So this is not just for those that will somehow stumble upon my writings but also for myself. Now, as I have mentioned earlier, there are a number of articles and posts written on the same subject. I will concentrate here on things and problems peculiar to my life experience. This enlightenment does not mean that I have learned these lessons and am a happy guy and am now telling you that this will make you happy as well. This is rather a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” I have learned these lessons but putting them into action is a constant struggle that is life. These rules are not magic beans and they won’t grow your life into something you want the moment you read them. The reason I compare improv to therapy is because you have to work on this as much as you would in therapy. And improv and therapy are not mutually exclusive but complement each other. Do not leave or avoid therapy for a chance to play and be popular. That was my mistake and it has cost me dearly. The other important notion is that improv is not just comedy. As in real life, there can and should be plenty of dramatic material in it.
So without further ado, here are the improv rules for a healthier life:
1. Say “Yes, and”, don’t deny or block.
Here’s the thing: when shit happens some of us, especially those with an anxiety problem, tend to go apeshit. I in particular have been very angry at the unfairness of the universe for sticking me with this handicap in form of ADHD-PI. Here’s the other thing: there’s no point in it. You can rail against it, cry about it, hurt yourself in various ways and it won’t change a goddamn thing. The best you can do is take a deep breath and remind yourself to move on. Say yes to this because that is the only way you can move past the issue that you have been unfairly saddled with; saying “no” and throwing a hissy fit in the direction of God, universe, the Force, etc will leave you in the same place you already are. Also, do not say no to your feelings. Trying to deny being angry is just as pointless as being stuck being angry. The “and” part after “yes” is what will allow you to figure out how to live with yourself. So “YES:” I got ADHD-PI with deep depression and horrible anxiety; I have trouble forming relationships and being a normal, social human being; I am pissed and hurt, because things are not the way I want them to be. “AND” I am going to therapy and have started this blog to try to untangle the mess that I’m in.
2. Don’t block.
In improv, blocking is defined as rejecting your scene partner’s offer. This is similar to saying “no” but not quite easy same thing in my humble opinion. “No” will just stop the progression of the scene same as the progression of your life. Blocking just makes things go in a different direction. In my case, I would find new hobbies, start new relationships, and ignore the stuff going on in my head. In life, you are your own scene partner (the other being life itself) so listen to yourself, pay attention to yourself, and support yourself.
3. Be in the moment.
You probably have heard a saying: “Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” It is very inspirational but kind of a bullshit. If you ignore or deny your past, you cannot have any future; and if you ignore the future your present will seem bland and pointless. Know it, remember it, go for it, but live in the here and now. This is just as important in life as in improv. You have to know exactly what happened for the scene and life to make sense. But be in the moment because that’s the only thing that matters right now. You can plan what will happen in the scene later on but this is improv so anything can happen at any moment. If your head is too much in the past or the future, you can miss a wonderful gift that life or your scene partner can come up with at any moment.
If nothing happens in life or in a scene than no one cares, including (most importantly) yourself. Be a part of life and allow it to change you. Every character you meet has the potential to change you. Allow that to happen and you will be better for it.
5. Play the game and have fun.
Shakespeare wrote that life is a stage and we are all actors in it. I would go even further and say that life is a long-form improv play. I hate those “present is a gift” and “play is a play” type of overly sweet platitudes but here we (unintentionally) are. Life is not a mere open scene but rather a succession of them. Remember that life is a game and you don’t always know the rules. So play the cards your are dealt regardless whether you like them. Sooner or later you will get something you can use. There’s a guy in Brazil who spent the last 45 years in bed after contracting polio as a child. He is also an animator who is in the process of creating an animated show based on the book written by his polio-stricken friend who has been in the same hospital with him for all these years. Your experiences are your own and only you can figure out how to make each and every one of them count for something.
There are many formats in improv and they are all good and their choice depends on preferences of players. It is up to you to choose he one that enriches your life the most and even change from one to another. You can live your life as a montage of scenes related to each other, or make it a long-form narrative, or a Harold. The choice of how you live your life is yours. Just remember to have fun because if people see you have fun they will stay with you. Even when the scene or a period in your life is so full of drama and sorrow, as long as you go through it with poise and purpose knowing that this is but a moment and you treat it with no less importance at the fun part, then audiences and people around you will stay and be a part of your unique experience.
So these are some basic things about life and improv. I hope that they will help you the same as they are helping me. It’s important though to not get stuck on them and look beyond them. If you decide to take improv classes in the hopes of improv-ing you life then do so but remember to live your life and pay attention to it and not using the fun of improv to let yourself ignore that which is most important: your own real life. For life may be a stage, but stage is not a substitute for life.