I don’t know if I’ve actually mentioned it here, but if you follow me on any of the various social networks I frequent, you may have heard that I’ve been taking improv classes. Originally, it was just a lark — I joined a bowling league when I first came to LA, and then planned to try an improv class (and then maybe take a cooking class or learn to brew some beer) — but thanks to some combination of amusement and apparent skill I’ve decided to stick with it. I’ve conquered four levels, am about to sign up for a fifth, and have joined up with a team that’s rehearsing and performing with some regularity.
I usually say that I’m not a performer, and I don’t really consider myself to be one. I like being in the spotlight, but I think it’s my Midwestern roots that taught me never to seek it out. “Shy” is also not a label that I usually ascribe to myself, but it’s true that I don’t like talking to people I don’t know. In a room of people I’ve never met, I usually stick to the wall, maybe have a drink, and eventually leave just to escape being so awkward. Around friends, I can joke and laugh, and when put on the spot to perform or speak, I can usually deliver (and enjoy doing so). But I think I lean more introverted than anything else, just because it’s less trouble, for me and others.
I’ve actually learned a lot about this kind of thing because I started doing improv. When you’re put on a stage and asked to play any number of characters or speak from any of many various points of view, you learn which points of view you can more easily espouse and which are more foreign. Playing a nerd feels simple and easy to make entertaining because it’s territory that I have traveled already (and I’m not complaining — I credit my nerdery with my livelhood). But playing someone confident and outgoing is not quite as easy for me — the choices that character would make are so different from the ones I make every day that I’m surprised how hard it is to make them.
That reads obvious when I type it out — of course acting is hard, and acting like someone very different from you is harder. But among the things I do admit I do well is observe, and the best characters I’ve played in my short career are imitations of people and character types that I’ve seen many times and know well. Surely I’ve seen confident and characters before — I can list off friends and acquaintances that I’d call confident and outgoing. It surprised me, I guess, that it was so hard to simply say what they would say and do what they would do.
And part of being in a performing group, I’ve discovered, is the constant pursuit of cohesion and improvement. To be a good improviser, especially one on a team trying to be good, is to be comfortable and ready with a quick line in any situation, and so I’ve found that being part of an improv group requires you to constantly push yourself (and your fellow members) out into very uncomfortable situations, only to make sure you’re right behind them and supporting when you do. One thing we’ve done as a group, though not in a really formal way, is to critique each other on our characters and choices. And since, as I said, there’s a real correlation between character choices and personal values, those critiques have expanded beyond just talking with each other about our improvisation, and moved on into talking to each other about ourselves.
In short, I’ve been told that I’m not confident enough. It’s not the first time I’ve been told this — when I was a kid, an older friend, somewhat of a mentor, came to me and confessed he was worried about my self esteem. I’m fine, I answered him. In fact, some of the kids at school had called me “arrogant” before — if anything, I said, I’m overconfident. My friend nodded doubtfully and left it at that.
But he was probably right, just as my group probably is now. For whatever reason, I often am my own worst critic, kicking myself for small mistakes even when I succeed in the big picture. When I’m at those gatherings hanging on the wall, or more likely walking home afterwards, I’m usually racking my brain trying to figure out what my deal is, why other people find conversation so simple and easy when I’ve got nothing to talk about and no one I want to talk about it with. When I’m given compliments, I try to take them with a thanks, but I still sneak in qualifications, to my own chagrin. Sure, I say, I did land that three-pointer pretty well, but it’s mostly the shoes. I just threw the ball and hoped. But thanks for the compliment. I appreciate it.
I’m sure it’s probably fixable, though the answers are probably the old platitudes of believing in yourself or valuing your strengths, neither of which I’m really bothered to do (and I could write a whole other post on how this thing supports itself — I do well but push myself to do better, which makes me do more well, which pushes me to push myself again, which makes me do better, and so on). And I didn’t join improv for the therapy — I joined it to imagine some fun things and make some jokes, both of which I’ve done (and do), with varying success. I don’t expect improv to fix my issues — in fact, though this is probably controversial to say, I do expect that most personal flaws don’t ever really get fixed anyway, so embedded they are in our own minds and experiences. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try, or that I don’t, but everything I’ve read about the way the mind works tells me it’s a snowball thing anyway. Reinforcement is a hell of a drug.
But I do find it interesting that improv has revealed this specific personal flaw. I still don’t consider myself a performer, even as I’m regularly performing. But I am surprised that I’ve learned so much about myself just from pretending to be other people.
Posted on Monday, February 14th, 2011 at 10:35 pm. Filed under general.