I’m about to sign up for improv classes. I’m scared shitless… and that right there is why I’m signing up for improv classes.
I’m an introvert — there’s no denying that. Big groups, small talk and constantly thinking on my feet are an energy drain like no other.
What I believed improv to be — naturally funny people (or painfully unfunny people who think they’re funny) trying to outdo each other to get a laugh — was aligned with everything I feared: spontaneity in a big group setting, potential embarrassment in front of strangers, putting myself in the spotlight. In high school, I saw improv as an outlet for the hyper, goofy, energetic kids, not the girl who brought her iMac to the library at lunch (yes, in its giant box). Please don’t pick me please don’t pick me please don’t pick me was constantly running through my head.
What I’ve realized, much too recently, is that I’d pegged improv all wrong. Improv is not about miraculously coming up with a witty joke on the spot or play acting as pirates or wizards or clowns or whatever else teenage boys thought would get a laugh. It’s about accepting failure, communicating clearly, listening intently, being obvious, and building on the ideas of others without judgement. That last one strikes a chord as a small-talk avoider — I don’t want to be a yes person, or worse, a yes, but person. Improv teaches you to be a yes, and person — accepting an offer and adding to it, not shutting it down.
I’ve been pretty obsessed with understanding the personalities of introverts lately (my own included). Some of us live in our heads, trying to craft the perfect sentence before it leaves our lips, often never letting it out before the moment passes. Sometimes this works in our favour, sometimes not. In the many How introverts can be great leaders and you should stop thinking they’re a mute articles cropping up since Susan Cain’s Quiet, a common thread seems to be ‘Introverts should try Toastmasters! Introverts should try Improv! Get out of your overthinking brain and become a better public speaker and soon you’ll be CEO of Old-School-Corporation-I-Don’t-Want-To-Work-For’. Oh sure, suggest away, but do you know how hard it is to picture yourself in that scenario and to see yourself succeeding? To make the decision to sign up? To actually go and do that thing? Yeah, not easy.
Moving to a new city AND a new country four months ago, from Toronto to San Francisco, made me rethink those scenarios. Toastmasters? Improv? Should I finally stop thinking they’re not for me and give them a shot? To not become a complete hermit, I can’t really survive solely on relationships I’ve slowly built up over the past few years in Toronto. I’m bordering on my late-20s and right now, connecting with people in meaningful ways is much more important than wooing anyone with my public speaking skills. I’m sure Toastmasters is great for mastering your start-up pitch, but improv seems like I’d get more out of it. Still terrifying, to be sure.
If I were in Toronto, I’d be subconsciously thinking what if this person knows that person and I embarrass myself and they tell that person’s mom who knows that person’s dog walker who knows this person who I went to school with and haven’t talked to in five years? Completely rational thoughts, eh? In San Francisco, I feel more invisible and luckily those thoughts haven’t really surfaced — but I wish I wouldn’t have let that stop me earlier.
And so, after some incessant googling of ‘improv for introverts’, I discover BATS Improv. More googling ensues to convince myself that this will be a good idea. No one seems to have been extremely humiliated or died or anything, so I think I can do it. Introverted improv-ers seem to think it was worthwhile, fun, life-changing even!
I actually managed to convince myself to sign up for a class a few months ago. It was a BATS class specifically designed for introverted and shy people. Perfect, I thought, I won’t be the only quiet one.
The day of — a Saturday morning— I hopped in an Uber Pool (first mistake). I left too late (second mistake). Anxiety started creeping in. I was going to be fifteen minutes late. A million scenarios started flooding in — I’ll have missed introductions, I’ll be singled out, I’ll have missed crucial instructions, everyone’s somehow going to have become BFFs in fifteen minutes. Completely rational thoughts like that. So I went up to the door and turned right around (third mistake). I felt shitty for days — it would’ve been no big deal to be a few minutes late, but I used that as an excuse to avoid my fear once again. Wouldn’t the feeling of accomplishment, even if it’d been sprinkled with moments of embarrassment, have been better than the gut-wrentching feeling of giving up? If I’m going to have my gut wrentched, I might as well feel good about it after.
So here I am again, a few weeks later, and I’ve got the list of class dates in front of me. I’ve looked at this too many times to count, each time failing to remember the wave of anxiety I put myself through by dwelling on the decision. Once again, I’m googling ‘BATs improv reviews’, ‘improv for introverts’ — desperate to be reassured. Back to the BATs site. Who is the instructor? Does he seem nice? Forgiving? Easy going? Intimidating?
I’ve filled out the signup form. All I have to do now is hit submit and my order will be sent. I’ll be committed to six improv classes. There’s no backing out of that. My knee is jumping up and down. I feel like I’m going to throw up. What if I show up and they’ve all become instant best friends? What if I clam up during introductions? What if I become known as that weird silent girl? What if I’m so awkward that it makes it terrible for everyone else to participate? What if I’m the worst one there?
So many unfounded what ifs. The only way to know for sure is to give it a shot. Here I go. I’m pressing submit.
Hyperventilating a bit.
Did I make a mistake? Back to the BATs site I go for more reassurance: “I can’t remember when I’ve felt more comfortable to make a mistake or take a risk” (BATS Student). Ok, ok. Calming down a bit. “It’s fun. You learn skills you can use every day. You meet lots of awesome people. It’ll change you in ways you can’t imagine. I’d recommend BATS over other schools because the emphasis is on story and character and acting rather than funny”. That sounds good. Ok, I think I can do it.
Today is Sunday and the class starts on Tuesday. If I’d given myself too much time, I’d have found a way to back out.
I feel like I need to keep it a secret.
You? You signed up to do improv? You think you’re funny or something?
Well, actually, improv isn’t really about…
WHAT… ARE YOU TRYING TO BECOME A STAND-UP COMEDIAN??
So I texted my sister, she’ll support me. I told her what I had just signed myself up for.
Good enough. Can’t back out now.
The next day I’m pretty pleased with myself that I finally committed. I’m optimistic about how it ‘might change me in ways I can’t imagine’.
T-minus 1 hour.
Stomach is not doing well. I’m going to do it and I’m going to feel soooo accomplished, yep yep yep, I tell myself.
Oh god, what if I puke.
I didn’t leave myself enough time again and now I’m rushing to get a Lyft and the driver’s so slow and why is he going on the freeway and what! why is he turning here! I’m going to be late. Breathe breathe air in air out. Deja vu.
Ahhh now I’m going up Franklin Street — up and down and up and down. Goddamnit San Francisco, this is not the time for a rollercoaster ride.
I’ve been dropped off at the edge of Fort Mason at 6:56 and I’ve got no time to think about turning around. A quick washroom stop and a drink from the water fountain to clear my absurdly dry throat and I anxiously wait for the elevator to take me to the 3rd floor. Another girl gets in, heading to the same floor. We don’t talk (correction: I don’t talk, I’m sure she senses my pure terror). Oh god, she looks outgoing. She probably did improv in school. She’s probably Amy Poehler’s cousin. What am I doing here? We find the theatre where the class is taking place. No turning back now.
There’s a small group scattered along the first few rows of the theatre. The fellow at the front must be the instructor. He beckons us to the front after I start to strategically sit a few rows up. I take a seat in the front row and the instructor is asking people how they heard about the class. One woman originally from Japan mentions she’d like to improve her public speaking skills. I think about chiming in but my mouth seems to be glued shut. The instructor (Ken) looks around the room, hoping for someone to break the silence. Please don’t pick me please don’t pick me please don’t pick me. Instead, he asks us to stand up and hop onto the stage… welp, see you on the other side.
Guys… I made it. And it was pretty damn fun.
Oh the first hour or so was terrifying, no doubt, but Ken did a fantastic job of making us feel at ease. Yes, I felt awkward, silly, shy, scared, stiff, tongue-tied, but it soon became a flurry of activity that relied on focusing and listening to everyone else in the group — and I realized no one had time to overanalyze what I was doing or saying. Everyone else was probably worried about the same thing. If I slipped up, we all slipped up. And maybe those slip ups could lead to something brilliant. We were all in it together — never focusing on an individual to save the day. I made loud noises that came out of my mouth without hesitation. I made gestures that I didn’t think about until the moment my arms started moving. People looked, people heard, no one cared!
In one activity, we all closed our eyes while Ken instructed us to remember the first thing that popped into our head when he said a particular word: red. We went around the circle: lips, apple, rain coat, fire, Santa Claus (the groups’ personal favourite). Remarkably, no two answers were the same amongst 15 or so people. It’s a pretty simple example, but think about how often this happens at work — what’s obvious to one person (‘the AMR went up 10.2% after the MTR PO’d’) probably means absolutely nothing to someone else. We don’t speak up and miscommunication just snowballs. Be obvious, don’t try to be original or clever. It’s a team sport. Phew.
Throughout the evening, we did a bunch games in pairs and as a group. I had many flustered moments, but I just had to remember: it’s a team sport, your partner’s job is to make you look good, and your’s is to do the same!
Towards the end of the evening, we returned to our seats in front of the stage. Our final activity was a mock talk-show, in which four people sat in a row and had to unite their brains in order to speak as just one guest, speaking one word at a time in response to the host. I was still a bit too nervous to be in the spotlight, so I didn’t volunteer. Sure, the group had moments of hesitation or uncertainty, but never did I think any of the things (judgement, pity) that I feared others would think if I were up there. Note to self: remember that.
We left the theatre — all on a bit of a high, I think. The feeling of accomplishment was a hell of a lot better than backing out at the last minute or never working up the courage to follow through in the first place.
As the class let out at 10PM, I called (er, tapped) an Uber Pool (first mistake again). While pooling with two girls who spent the next twenty minutes listing off the ingredients and quantities of their daily salad and water intake was perhaps not the cherry on top of the evening, Pankaj and his Prius got me home in a jiffy. Exhausted, I couldn’t wait to pass out (in a good way this time).
So, on to week two and I’ll be sure to keep you updated on the number of times I think I’m going to throw up and/or pass out. Byee!