I started taking improv classes a few months ago. As you can imagine, it's been quite an interesting adventure. I frequently refer to them as my learn-to-be-funny classes, although it's turned out to to be a lot more about discovering my fears and boundaries.
Performing isn't really a big fear for me... I have enough of the only child LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME mentality not to be afraid of standing in front of people. However, I developed an instinctive fear of being viewed negatively when I was one of those bullied kids in school. I will usually avoid doing anything that makes me look stupid, both consciously and unconsciously. Little insiders tip about performing comedy: it doesn't really work if you're not willing to look stupid.
I'm next in line to create a scene. I must start as an animal and then become a human with the characteristics of the creature. I'm given “panther” as the cue, and must begin. I find myself crawling along the floor, doing my best stalk, slowly rising to my feet with as much grace as my 220 lb, 5'7” body can muster. I feel embarrassed by the difficulty I have. I'm glad when the exercise is over, sure that I've disgusted my fellow students. The one who suggested my animal persona (who is himself a reasonably attractive straight male), tells me that my performance was his favorite of the night. I don't know what to think.
On a similar vein, these classes bring up a lot of my body issues. I'm not comfortable with my body, and when I'm asked to crawl, or roll around, or bounce, I get really weirded out and have a hard time doing it. I am also discovering just how genuinely bothered I am by people touching me or being asked to touch other people. Just having people invade my bubble without touch makes me incredibly freaked out, and I find myself backing away from them. I'm curious to find out if this is the result of sexual abuse, or simply because my family was never very huggy. It's also something I'd really like to change about myself... I don't want to be scared to touch and be touched.
I try to do the “straight man” to my acting partner's silliness. The teacher stops me and asks me to imitate my partner's goofy behavior instead. I do, trying really hard to just be in this character instead of worrying about how I look. My acting partner lays on the ground and invites me to join him. I insist I don't lay on the ground. “Yes you do!” cries my teacher, and I force myself to at least sit on the ground next to him. He's scared me with the invitation to lay with him, is the thing. On the surface I know I'm safe... I'm in a room full of people, my scene partner is not some crazed sexual predator... but the defenses have come up, covering me in a layer of razor-sharp spines. The scene continues as he keeps pushing my boundaries, playing with my hair, touching my arms... I'm grateful to him, for understanding that I need to be pushed, but not pushing so hard that I can't take it.
Another issue that's coming up is how little I trust myself. I've been having a really hard time pushing myself to spit out those ideas that float into my head during improvisational exercises. Needless to say, if you can't trust yourself, you're not going to do well in improv. It also ties into that desperate need not to look like an idiot, because the nature of improv is that you sometimes fail. Sometimes what you say doesn't work and you just have to find your way back to the funny. A lot of that comes from practice, but there's also an element of knowing that you're good and will eventually make it right. It's something I don't have, but I want. I want to learn how to trust myself.
We stand in a circle, doing two-line scenes, jumping out with no forethought and shouting a line that someone else must jump out and respond to. We are nine weeks in, and I still haven't been able to be the first to jump out. Whatever I say will be too lame, too pointless. It doesn't matter that half the other lines the other students are coming up with are lame and that is the whole point of the exercise.
These classes are not all terror and sweaty palms. I laugh through most of the night, I enjoy watching my fellow students take risks and I learn so much every night. I don't know if improv is an art I'll ever excel at, but I can sense how incredibly good it is for me.