This week marks five years since my first improv class at Second City. With all the personal drama I've battled in past few years, improvisation and comedy have been a constant in my life, cathartic as well as a creative outlet. At the same time, it's one of the few things I don't feel comfortable explaining. Even though I've been improvising a fairly long time, it's become such a personal part of me that it's difficult to write about it introspectively. I'm still learning and honing my craft, and even if a particular show didn't go that well, I have the confidence and hindsight to learn from my mistakes and keep chugging along. Above all, there's plenty to learn when a show goes very badly. Here are three examples:
1. My Level D Performance Show, Donny's Skybox, 2/28/2010. My second show ever. My first improv show before an audience went well for our class, and we were chomping at the bit to do it again. However, there was an unexpected and discernible difference between our Level C instructor and Level D teacher: one taught and the other didn't. One offered pragmatic and concise feedback, the other just said "that's nice" and often seemed as distant and she was vague.
In the end, everything that could go wrong did. The energy was very low, no one seemed to be listening, we were barely starting scenes and rushing through in desperate, almost selfish gasp for stage time. Even in the structured, rapid-fire dynamic of short-form "game" improv nothing seemed to be happening. The show closed with a round of Blind Freeze where everyone just kept editing after two lines, far too short to develop any scene. We had our show the evening after our last class, so it's not like our Level D instructor was going to share her notes, either.
Lesson Learned: Just breathe.
2. Underground Lounge, circa July 2012. I finally started to dabble in "barprov" in late 2011, and often I would book 18- to 20-minute slots first without having a specific person or team to play with. I suppose that's okay in some circles, but it's preferable to book a slot for someone or something in particular. Booking said slot on less than 72 hours' notice makes things much trickier. On this particular night, nearly my entire social circle had other plans. I messaged about 40 people on Facebook before settling on "Lamar," a mutual friend with limited barprov experience, followed by a former classmate that I hadn't been in touch with. On paper, this was an odd couple.
The slot was booked at 8pm on a Wednesday night. I gave the host the name "The Partial Enchilada," my catch-all for anytime I was doing improv on a casual, non-committal basis. The mutual friend showed up on time, but the former classmate completely flaked out. (In fact, I never heard from the old fellow ever again.) On top of that, the air conditioning was malfunctioning; the machine was above the stage, and it was not operating or blasting on an intermittent basis. Once we were set to play, we proceeded to do a series of scenes with Lamar that involved a lot of talking but not much physical action. The AC was very loud at that point, so we had people sitting in the front row yelling "speak up!" as we're doing scenes.
I ended up giving Lamar a ride back to the CTA, but we haven't played together since.
Lesson Learned: A bad idea with strong support goes a lot further than good idea with no support. Also, I hate flake-outs.
3. Upstairs Gallery, Valentine's Day Jam, 2/14/2014. What happens when you encounter someone who intensely dislikes you, and you have to perform in front of them? I had largely avoided that situation until this past V-Day, when I ran into another former classmate and onetime friend at this Andersonville venue. "Erika" had severed ties shortly after her 23rd birthday in September 2012 (odd timing, I know). I later found out by accident that Erika had unfriended and blocked me on Facebook, for reasons that are still very much unclear. Any attempt to communicate with her by e-mail and text have been largely ignored. I don't recall having any specific misunderstanding with her, which makes our communication breakdown even more peculiar.
Even though I wasn't booked to perform, any improviser that was invited was also encouraged to participate in a jam between acts. When my name was pulled from a hat, I stood up from my folding chair, found my place in the line on stage, and... inadvertent made eye contact with Erika. As she sat in the back row, the look on her face could be described as mildly annoyed. This particular ten-minute set went okay, but I was in my head the entire time; I made one strong character choice and that didn't go anywhere, and largely couldn't get a word in edgewise. I spent the rest of the evening either fishing for positive feedback from my peers, or making small talk to avoid any further awkward encounters with my unintended adversary.
Lesson Learned: Don't let drama distract you.
Next Week: my Class of 2014 memory list.