Improv(ing) my life: What improv comedy taught me about marriage, motherhood and life, Part I
I am three weeks into an eight week introductory improv course.
I’ve been embarrassed to tell people, as if the admission suggests I think I’m really comedic or something. The truth is, I read Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” a few years ago, in which she suggests everyone should take an improv class at some point in their life. I knew right then I had to at some point take one, even though just the thought of it was enough to induce a panic attack. But who am I to argue with Tina?
Joe, being the benevolent husband he is, decided to call my bluff and get me to shut up about how I’m going to take an improv class someday by signing me up for one and paying the deposit in full without telling me. Merry Christmas to me, I guess.
I practiced my Lamaze breathing on the drive up to my first class, I was so anxious. If he hadn’t paid the deposit, I swear I would have turned around.
But I’m so glad I didn’t; I’m having a blast.
The cool thing is that even though I’ll probably never be an improvisational actress, the skills learned in an improv class apply to life, love, motherhood and career.
Here is Part 1 of what improv is teaching me about life.
1. Don’t make your goal to “NOT MESS UP.”
In improv, if your goal is to not mess up, you probably will. If you’re on stage and all you can think of is “don’t mess up, don’t mess up, don’t mess up,” you’ll be stiff, tongue tied, afraid to take risks, and you’ll ultimately fail. Sometimes in a social or professional setting, my inner voice is going “CARLY DON’T BLOW THIS,” and I’m so paralyzed by fear of looking idiotic that I can’t have fun, which ultimately makes me look like an idiot. Anyone identify with this? No? No one? Oh, well me neither.
2. Be flexible with your role in marriage
During class this week, my assigned partner and I had five seconds to make our bodies look like a blooming flower in a vase. With that kind of deadline, we didn’t have time to stand around decided who would do what, or argue over who wanted to be the flower or the vase. My partner just dropped to his knees and made his arms look like a vase and instinctively I knew it was time for me to stretch my arms out and look like a very awkward flower. I became the thing that was most needed of me in that moment, and the job got done. Sometimes, even in an egalitarian marriage I can get stuck on what I perceive our roles to be. Joe and I fall into natural rhythms of whose job it is to do what, and that’s OK. But I’m learning to be less rigid in those roles – that if my parter needs me to be a blooming flower (or be the one to change the diaper at 3 a.m., or take out the trash), then in that moment, that’s what I’ll do.
3. Make others look good
This is a big one for me. In an improv sketch, your main focus should be on supporting those around you. Setting them up for jokes. Giving them opportunities to be funny. Going with their idea. Making them shine. In life, I tend to worry whether I look good, what people think of me, if I’m acceptable, successful or attractive. The shift here is to get out of yourselfand think about how you can make those around you look good. Drawing out other people’s best qualities, making them feel comfortable, accepted, attractive. I can see this shift of focus being really helpful for me in my struggle with moms groups. What happens naturally with this outlook, is you in turn look good without trying so hard.
4. Don’t dwell on your failure (or success) in the past
You hear a lot of people say to “be in the now.” This comes to an urgent head in improv. You will mess up, but there is no time to dwell on that. You will succeed too, but you can’t afford to sit around basking in your glory. You have to be present in the moment, always. If I’m focused on how I fell short as a mother or writer yesterday, it affects me today. Mistakes will happen, but they don’t have to prevent me from succeeding right now.
5. If you fail, fail big.
Failing big is funny. Failing big makes for a great story. Failing big means you tried. What isn’t funny is just shying away and giving up quietly. For example, during an improv show I sat in the audience for last week, the actors were playing a game where they had to come up with the names of salad dressing very quickly. One guy said “Thousand Island!” and then the next guy, who clearly couldn’t think of another dressing on the spot shouted “TWO THOUSAND ISLAND!” He was eliminated from the game, but he got a huge laugh for it. It wouldn’t have been memorable or funny if he just hung his head low, shrugged his shoulders and mumbled “I can’t think of any.” Don’t let the fear of failure stop you from trying your hardest. For me, this blog is a good example – it’s super scary for me to put my thoughts out there for you all to read, but with each post it gets easier and more fun. Even if my readers dwindle to zero and the Internet kicks me out for being the Worst Blog of All Time, that is a better failure than the failure of letting fear prevent me from starting this blog in the first place.
I’ll be doing at least one more post about what I’m taking home from my improv class in the coming weeks.
Have you ever thought about signing up for one? They aren’t nearly as scary as they sound.