A self-described type-A takes an improv class—and struggles to think on her feet instead of staying in her head.
At the start of this year, I decided to take an improv course. I wanted to shake things up, stretch myself, try something new. To be completely honest, I was also hoping to unearth a hidden—and undeniable—talent. What if improv was my calling and I just didn't know it yet? After all, I've always been a late bloomer. (Puberty was a 10-year-long affair for me.) So with much hope and false confidence, I signed up for an Improv 101 course at the Upright Citizens Brigade Training Center, in New York City. Cofounded by Amy Poehler and the stomping ground of the now established Broad City duo, UCB seemed like the perfect place to start my (potential) career in comedy.
Things got off to a rocky start. In an uncharacteristic move, I somehow mixed up my dates and missed the first two classes. This, of course, made me feel more anxious. But I marched (OK, meekly walked) into the room and tried to hide my mounting fears—and sweaty palms—as I met my already acquainted classmates for the first time. There were actresses, accountants, fashion bloggers, waitresses, yoga instructors—and me, the panicked beauty editor, who at that moment was ready to forfeit the tuition money and run out. "Most of you are here because at some point in your life you were told that you were funny," said Ben, our instructor. (I blame my best friend for encouraging this delusional behavior.)
For the next eight weeks, I spent three hours every Monday confined to a small, stark room with these super-size personalities who all seemed too experienced, too confident, and too damn hilarious to be in an introductory course. Luckily, there were a few fellow wallflowers; I clung to them like burrs on wool socks. Contrary to what I expected, there was very little guidance and absolutely no hand holding of any sort. (There was some actual hand holding in exercises. Awkward.) We were immediately thrust into rapid-fire scenes, which we initiated or joined based off a word or a phrase given by the instructor. If you were lucky, you got a suggestion that resonated with you: "Harry Potter" or "hip-hop." (Crushed it.) Most times you were stuck with a topic that left you with no place to go: "Amuse-bouche" or "torque wrench." (Cue panic.)
I found myself standing in the back line more than I wanted. Time stood still, as did I. My classmates threw themselves into scene after scene, while I agonized over the right thing to say. I was doing what came naturally to me (planning, self-editing), and the opposite of what we were being taught (being present, reacting). In improv, you're not supposed to think; you just do. Whether you're initiating a scene or walking into one that has already been established, you are supposed to go in without question and let things unfurl.
It all sounded so simple. But for me—precisely the type of person you want to stand behind during a TSA screening, because I only wear slip-on shoes and never, ever wear anything that might set off the metal detector—this was cruel and unusual. Alas, I trudged on, week after week, feeling more uncertain and unfunny. Walking from the subway station to class, I would give myself a hearty pep talk. You are hilarious. You can do this. You are an improv goddess. Huzzah! Then I'd enter the room and have complete amnesia.
Why was this so difficult for me? It clearly wasn't stage fright. I had spent most of my life performing: in choir, in a musical, in an a cappella group. One semester, I even tried my hand at becoming the next song-writing sensation on YouTube. (Shout out to my 75 subscribers: I will always love you.) But in improv, with no sheet music or rehearsed script to go off of, I realized that I was dependent on those things. I was seeking control in a world where there wasn't supposed to be any. It's possible that this need for order stemmed from the overwhelming lack of it I felt growing up. When your parents ambush you with not one, not two, but three moves between the already volatile ages of 14 and 16, it affects you in a lot of ways—both good and bad. The good is that I'm unafraid of change and regularly seek out new opportunities; the not-so-good is that I apparently need to have control over this change and everything that happens before, during, and after.
I wish I could say there was this pivotal moment in class where I suddenly learned to laugh at myself and roll with the punches. Instead, I was trying so hard that I exhausted myself, which led to my eventual surrendering. In most other scenarios, this could be seen as "giving up," but in improv it was exactly what I needed. I finally understood, through the fog of fatigue, that it wasn't about being the best in class or practicing until you were. It was about trusting in the things you already know to guide the things you don't.
And that applies to so much more than improv. I know that I want to run a marathon this year. I don't know if I'll finish it in one piece, but I definitely won't regret trying. I know I want to share this essay with people. I don't know how I'll feel when it's actually out there in the universe (or on my parents' fridge), but I certainly enjoyed writing it. Who knows? Maybe it will lead other type-A personalities to an improv course that will teach them how to loosen the reins a little.
Eight weeks passed and class culminated in a graduation show for our friends and family. Perhaps it was my newfound wisdom, or the two beers I had beforehand, but I felt strangely calm as we took the stage. I finally got off the back line and dove into scene after scene. I don't know if any of it was funny, but it sure was fun.
About the Author
Jenny Jin is a beauty editor at Real Simple. When she's not testing makeup and writing about it, you can find her in a spin class—or a Taco Bell. Follow her @jyjin.