I’m always trying to find ways to improve myself. Where can I push myself to be better? I was listening to a podcast a few years ago, and the hosts also runs a boot camp. The boot camp is designed to help improve social skills. One of the ways they accomplish that goal is by having the students learn improv during the boot camp.
Skipping a lot of details, the main host left the company and started a new company. That left me thinking, did I have the courage to try improv on my own?
Why did I act on this idea? I didn’t have to do improv. Why did I want to put myself out there in-front of others. My level of anxiety was going to go through the roof. Just thinking about it made my heartbeat a little faster.
Fear is nasty. I wanted to tackle it.
I started improv for very specific reasons (in no order).
I wanted to think faster.
I wanted to feel more comfortable in front of other people. At the time, I was just starting my journey as a content creator for work. I had been making instructional videos, where I recorded the screen and talked over it (voice overs). Around that time, I was asked to create a series of videos, but in camera. Mega fear moment.
I wanted to feel more comfortable in unexpected situations. At the time, I liked to be able to control a situation and control the outcome. That isn’t how life works. Curve balls happen. Could I improve how I felt and responded when things weren’t consistent and expected?
I wanted to learn more about myself. Who am I? What am I capable of doing?
Turning up the Anxiety
I started looking for schools in the Denver area and found a few of them. After looking through their programs I decided on the Bovine School of Improv. I liked the Bovine’s program. Level one and level two introduce object work and then character development. Level three is where things start getting serious.
On Monday nights, the Bovine puts on a show called a Hootenanny. It is where four teams perform anywhere from eighteen minutes to twenty-five minutes. The level three class gets to perform in one of the shows as the opening team for eighteen minutes. Same for level four and level five. In level five, you are given the opportunity to put on a four week show for ninety-minutes. In total, the program would take about a year.
I signed up.
The entire day leading up to my first class I was having trouble thinking. Class was hours away, and I was already nervous.
Driving there, still nervous.
Walking to the theater, even more nervous.
Waiting for others to show up, crazy nervous.
The entire day, I felt like I was in the fight or flight mode.
We had about ten people who showed up for class that first night. Of course, we had to say why we signed up for improv. As we talked, I found out I wasn’t alone. Other’s had similar reasons for being there.
It then became time for play. We started playing improv games. It was awkward at first, but I laughed, a lot. It was a lot of fun. As each of us let our guard down, it became more and more fun. So much fun, that I couldn’t wait to come back the following week. Same thing the following week. We got to know each other more and more. What were our strengths? Where we needed improvements. I really enjoyed class. I hadn’t laughed that much in as long as I could remember. It was addicting.
As level one came to an end, I felt accomplished. I had done it. I had done eight weeks of improv. I was proud of myself. Box checked, all done. Ready for another adventure, but it wasn’t that clean of an ending. At the last class, talks started happening about level two. People started asking, are you continuing to level two? I hadn’t planned on continuing. Most of the class had already signed up. I felt the pressure. I decided, what is another eight weeks? Was it really that bad?
Level two focuses on character development and scenes. I really struggled with character development. I felt like I was too guarded to try new characters. What if I tried a new character and it failed? What would people think? This wound up being a huge roadblock for me. I’ll talk more about that later. There was still plenty of laughter in each class. I was still laughing way more than I ever had before I started improv. It just required pushing myself harder than the previous class.
As we got to the end of level two, there was a different feeling in the classroom. Less and less people started showing up. We had concerns about enough people showing up to even hold class. There wasn’t the excited conversations of continuing. Level two had been hard. It had really pushed our comfort levels. We learned things about ourselves we never knew before.
Only three of us continued.
The minimum size for class is eight people. With only three continuing, we didn’t have enough for a class. We had to wait for another class to start level three, and the three of us would join them.
We joined a class of twelve. Twelve others that had been with each other from level one. It was a huge shock to walk in the room. Going from a class size of about four to fifteen was pretty intense. I really shutdown for the first few classes. I slowly made progress, but I fell into survival mode. Just get through each week. Each class was one less week. I really stopped enjoying improv.
Level three really focuses on characters. Intensely. With me being in such a closed up state, I made little progress. I had one real character, and that was it. As level three came to an end, the inevitable question came up. Would I continue or would I quit?
I talked with the instructor for level three, and had the option of repeating, continuing, or dropping. Ultimately, I decided to continue. If I repeated, it would have been a new group all over again. If I dropped, I felt like I would have let myself down. Continuing was the only option.
I grouped level four and five together, because it really is one long class. The prereq. to level five is level four. You can’t take level five by itself. You have to take them back to back with the same group of people. In level four, things started changing for me. We focused primarily on playing. Trying out different styles (forms) for improv shows. We spend a lot of time playing instead of focusing on technique. I felt this really took the pressure off. If something didn’t work out, no big deal. We would end the scene and two other people would jump out. The fun started coming back. I started enjoying class again.
As we entered level five, it became time to prepare for our four week show. We decided on the troupe name Hot Dog Army after a scene we did, and the show called, A Modern Inconvenience. Since we had been playing for basically sixteen weeks, we have been practicing our show the entire time. When it came time for the actual on stage performance, it felt natural.
To be honest, I don’t really remember how it went. When I was on stage, the audience melted away. I forgot they were there. I was in the moment. The time just disappeared.
As we finished our last show, I didn’t feel finished. I felt I had so much more growth to do. I wasn’t happy with where I was.
I decided to go back to where I felt things fell apart. I went back to level three. I signed up, I showed up, and I learned again. This time, I didn’t know anyone, but I knew that going in. Having gone through all the levels before, I saw new things. I appreciated parts of the instruction I hadn’t noticed before. I felt like I got better.
I continued with the same group through level four and level five. At level five, there were just five of us. It was a small group, but I find myself feeling more comfortable in smaller groups. We decided to call ourselves Five Finger Discount. There was no show name, just our name. I absolutely loved it. It was so much fun. We had our graduation shows at the end of March/beginning of April. I couldn’t be happier with how it went. I loved every moment. It was so much fun.
Walking home after the last show, I felt a huge sense of happiness and sadness. More than I had ever felt before. I felt content with my progress, but left confused on where to go next.
As luck would have it, there our auditions coming up for another show, and I applied. By the time this blog is published, I’ll have already written the resume, and auditioned.
I loved the experience and I loved the challenge (afterwards). Improv is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It pushed me harder than I ever knew. There were plenty of days I didn’t want to continue. I had to take a step back and think, do I want to quit because it doesn’t make sense, or do I want to quit because it is challenging me in new and uncomfortable ways? For me, it was the latter. That is why I decided to continue. In the end, I’m so happy I did. I met so many new people, created so many new memories, and laughed so much.