Why I Left Improv and (Spoiler Alert) Why I’m Going Back

by robinhardwick

I was an improv person. I used to “do” improv. I was the “improv” person, the thing that people at work knew me for. I used to spend most of nights either at rehearsals, jams or friends’ shows. But for the last year, I have avoided any such activity. Mostly because I failed at doing improv. I’m a goddamn failure at it.

My path to improv is not an uncommon one. In 2002, I moved to New York City for graduate school. Being in New York, I went to see a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, one of the tenaments of alternative comedy in, well, the world. the first show I saw was a group called Respecto Montalban, which included Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, Jackie Clarke, Chad Carter, Rob Riggle, among others. [These people are now big players in the comedy world.] I could barely contain my joy in seeing the story unfold before me. This was all improvised. How did they do that? It seemed literally impossible. Sunday night’s ASSCAT show became a regular staple in my life; waiting in line was when I got most of my reading for school done.

I was enchanted by this new thing that I wanted to see each and every night, but I could never do that, could I? No, I could never, I was never a performer, I was frightfully self-conscious. Long story short, I lived in suburban Connecticut for three years, so I went through a comedy/improv/everything drought. Cut forward to 2007, when I moved to Berkeley, CA. Knowing no one, I searched around for classes to take, groups to join, anything that could force me to be around people. The local YWCA offered cheap classes, in everything from yoga, ballroom dance…and improv. Wait, could? Should I? If anything, this was the time to do it. I had moved across the country to the West Coast for a new beginning, a new challenge. Before I could stop myself, I signed up.

The day of the class was the most agonizing day I can remember. I thought about flaking and how good it would feel. Somehow, I got myself to the class and met the teacher, Alex. Alex is actually the person I attribute to my improv and thus sketch and thus writing “career”. The great thing about Alex is that he knows his audience. People taking an improv class at the YWCA were not looking to be cast in sitcom pilots. They wanted to try things out and have fun. Alex lead us through activities that seemed like adult recess. Basic exercises to get your brain flowing and “yes anding” others. Alex gave feedback, but rarely and gently. He was like a teacher that helped you wade into the deep end and then were your swimmies to help you float. All of that without infantilizing and condescension.

After taking the five week cycle a few times, Alex announced he was going to begin another class called “Improv For Performance”, a slightly more advanced course culminating in a class performance. Of course I jumped at the chance. See, the thing is, I felt I had “mastered” the introductory class (whatever that means!). I often got laughs and I played well with others. After that class and surviving a real live performance (I sweated through my entire jeans during the show.) Alex’s class gave me the confidence to try other improv schools: I signed up for intermediate improv at BATS, and also tried out for Pan Theater’s training troupe program. I had the mindset of a person who first discovers improv: I couldn’t stop doing it. I signed up for every jam, every drop in session, anything I could do. I often wondered, “what do people even DO who don’t do improv?” I had also made some great friends in these classes, finally finding my footing in the Bay Area. My world became divided into two times: times when I was doing improv and times I was not. Also, improv people are so much fun! They get your humor! [Cut to last month, when I was observing an improv group warming up. Believe me, as an outsider, it is apparent how annoying they appear.]

Here’s the thing with me: when I start learning something new, I am usually really good at it and really quick at getting good at it. I can pick up the basics almost immediately. I’m similar with languages. But something happens when you master the basics: you get down to the real work. You have the building blocks, now you need to do things. I can knit scarves like a champ, but I’m fucked when it comes to making a hat or gloves. I give up on Android games when I get to a level I can’t beat. With improv, you can only get good by getting good at something you can’t even put into words. In a way, improv is a formula (i.e., always say “yes”, add something to the story, make a choice”) but just following the formula is not enough. I’m great at following formulas. When the creative choice widens, I flounder.

Still, I pushed myself and made the house team of the theater. Here was a regular Friday night gig, where people actually PAID to see me and others perform. Sure, sometimes there were more people on stage than in the audience, but I was a performer. I had an improv community. This was the perfect setup for me. An already established theater invited me into their fold. I didn’t have to do the background work, I could just do the fun part. Just as things were reaching the near perfect situation, things fell apart.

Due to issues that are not even worth getting into, my improv team had to sever relationships with the theater. It was upsetting for all of us, but I was devastated. No more regular performances and scheduled rehearsals. I’m like a toddler, socially speaking in that I need scheduled “play dates” so to speak. I love having a weekly commitment; giving myself structure is a deterrent for me to be in my house all the time. Something else about improv is that the more work you do with the same team, the more you gel. We were probably right in that sweet spot where we started to anticipate each others responses. For a the first few months, we had regular rehearsals that were quite fun. Even after a long shitty day at work, you could put it all aside while doing improv. In fact, you HAD to. Even though we were exiled, the rest of the team wanted to keep the magic we had alive. We confessed our devotion to the art and forged on alone, as independent entities in an art form that dictates collaboration.

A few months into this rogue foray as an improv team, things changed for me. Going to rehearsal felt more like work than fun. I started to hold resentment for the others when they missed meetings or made excuses. Believe me, I didn’t want to resent my team, but I couldn’t help it. Because people were not at rehearsal often, it was hard to continue to keep the connection when performing.  We planned a performance at a theater, and instead of being exciting, it became stressful to ensure people showed up and that we really delivered. After a while, we would schedule performances and then it would be a struggle for others to even agree to perform on those dates. It felt terrible and my resentment was growing. I always felt a bit smug that our group was still tight every time I heard of another fledgling improv team disband after a few months.

But I have to be honest. Much of the resentment was projection. I was frustrated with myself and my non-improvement. Sure, I had mastered the basics very quickly, rose to the top of the basic level quickly, and was good enough to make the house team. I needed some major improvement and I didn’t know how or even what specifically to improve. That’s the beauty of having a coach; believe me, a self-directed improv group is not the best at giving feedback (myself included). I got frustrated with others  lack of progress. My feedback became more accusatory than helpful.  I became more and more self-conscious conscious when performing, reverting back to, shall I dare admit…amateur mistakes. Instead of having the challenges be “growth” for me as an artist. I scowled and stomped my feet.

Furthermore, I couldn’t really enjoy watching improv anymore. I spent too much time deconstructing it, being overly critical (even though I was floundering in my own skills). I tried to be supportive of my friends in their performances, but it became frustrating. I compared myself, my group, and everything to everyone. The paradoxical thing about improv is that its all about equality and supporting each other, yet , it being a performance art brings forth jealousy and comparison. These feelings are inevitable and happen to everyone, but it’s how you internalize it that makes the difference between a healthy person and a self-destructive one. Guess which one I was (is).

My improv group tried to hold on for a few more months, but we all knew we were running on fumes. We had several “come to jesus” talks where people promised to improve attendance and commitment, but it never stuck. I finally made the decision to take a hiatus, and I knew in my heart that it would be over if I left. Not because of my talents, but I was one of only about three people that attended practice regularly. I was right, we finally threw in the towel. When the decision was made, I felt immense relief way before I felt grief. I didn’t want to start to resent these people. We had been through a lot. Without the group there would be no resentment.  There was also a sense of loss.

Of course, there were still options out there. But I had an excuse for every option: it was either too expensive, too cliquey, too much “bro-prov”, I wasn’t “cool” enough [yes, I know its ridiculous]. I had lost my confidence in my abilities. THe fun, adult-like playing that first drew me to improv was gone. I wasn’t in the moment, I was no longer patient with others I felt were lagging. I knew that at some point it would be hard work, I didn’t expect to sail through it without any feedback or criticism, but by then, all the outlets felt so uninviting to me. I wouldn’t be the best at it, and in fact, I may be one of the worst. You know, the one that goes out on stage to initiate a scene and then everyone hesitates.

One of my problems in life (and that’s an understatement) is that I internalize a story behind everything and make up scenarios and external forces that don’t exist. I feel like I was never given permission to pursue improv. Whose permission?, you may be asking yourself. That’s the thing. I DON’T KNOW. Obviously, the only permission I need is from myself. Along with all this internalized fuckery, I was also associating improv with the annoyance and frustration I felt, not with the fun of it. I officially “left” improv, feeling like a failure. I mean, a hiatus really means you’re done, but you don’t want to admit it, right?

Things weren’t all terrible. Improv did inspire me to be more creative and I gave sketch writing a try, to some success. I wrote for some shows, had a disastrous learning experience when producing a filmed sketch, and connected with some other great writers. Unfortunately, as it does with the performing arts, things fall apart and I was again left without a homebase, a group to write with. I was untethered and I hated it. Sure, nothing is stopping me from writing anything at any time. But what’s the point of a sketch if there is no audience for it.

People often suggest that I should start my own sketch group and make it happen, but honestly, that feels exhausting and not really the part I like. My day job includes a lot of team leading and project initiating and seriously, it’s exhausting and not very abundant in getting respect. I’m a good leader in that I am organized and strategic, but I just don’t have the charisma or confidence to inspire a whole performance group. It’s not a knock on myself, it’s just my personality. [And quite frankly, I feel like I don’t have that elusive sense of “permission” to do it.

So, now, as I close up 2013, I am untethered. I don’t have a troupe, theater company, or something that I am attached to, and I hate it. I’ve been writing for myself like gangbusters, but lets face it, I don’t need more alone time. But to give up on creating comedy would be a real cowardly move. So, about a year with not setting a toe onstage or in a practice, I’m going to give it a fresh start.

I’ve signed up for Alex’s improv class [he has since stopped teaching at the YWCA and runs his own private classes]. I’m planning on going in and thinking of it as a reboot. I want to recapture the excitement I had in 2008 when I first started classes with Alex, and I am know that he is still a patient, amazing teacher. Who cares if I can’t create a fully, developed character who has clear objectives and heightens the scene and takes the bolder choice and lets her character be vulnerable but also supports the group objective and follows the format and knows when to cut a scene and etc. etc., I can wipe all that clean and start again. But, I have a feeling that muscle memory will kick in.

I’m always disputing this business-speak, self-help notion that failure is good for you. Well, I fucking failed at doing improv. But I’m not going to metaphorically leave with my tail behind my legs and go live in my parents basement. I’m going to pick up that sound ball right back up and hurl it at someone with a guttural moan.