In a few weeks I’ll celebrate my two-year improv-a-versary. I’d by lying if I suggested that when I was driving toward my very first improv class—Level 1 at Merlin Works—I wasn’t feeling a bit cocky. I was about to blow some motherfuckers away with my beefy comedic prowess.
The deeper truth is that my confidence was just compensating for my fear. I’d vaguely wanted to do improv for years, and here I was, finally doing it. But what if I sucked? What if being funny when hanging out with my friends didn’t translate? What if the class was filled with lean, sinewy, histrionic actor types? I loathed those types since high school theater. They were so comfortable with themselves! It was pathetic.
Mostly, though, I was tingly and excited. I didn’t know during that drive toward Class #1 that I was about to open a new and hugely rewarding chapter of my life. But I suspected that, at worst, I’d be proud of my willingness to try something new. For almost a decade I’d gotten comfortable (read: uncreative) as a member of the poetry slam scene.
This was my first attempt to strike out in a new direction alone. It was just me, expanding my horizons or whatever.
In truth, I’d missed the first week of Level 1 because I was, and remain, incapable of managing a calendar in my head. I just totally spaced out. So that first class was actually my classmates’ second class. Was one week enough to bond? Was one week enough to form an impenetrable clique? I worried. I might be an outsider before I even had a chance to strut my stuff.
But Shana Merlin, my instructor, wouldn’t have let that happen. She shook my hand, she smiled, she laughed at my dumb little jokes, and she immediately pulled me into the group. She explained our warm-ups and games in detail. She didn’t put me on the spot. She kind of opened the gate and let me join the flowing river of improvisation.
A few months ago there was a Free Fringe show called Improv Saved My Life. The premise was that the players would each share a brief monologue about how improv literally saved their life. That struck me as a bit extreme. If I put up a similar show I’d name it “How Improv Made My Life So Very Much Better Than It Was Before.” Because that statement is 100% accurate.
Here’s why: About a year before that first improv class I had been dumped, hard, by a girlfriend whom I’d caught—literally caught—cheating on me. I’ll spare you the boring details, but suffice it to say: Despite being heartbroken, I took this woman back out of desperation and fear. She, thankful that she wasn’t made out as the villain and eventually disgusted by my lack of backbone, dumped me a few days later. It was ugly. A few days after that, I was laid off from my job.
I slipped into a malaise. Unemployed, single, and broke. No hobbies except my X-Box. I spent about three months mired in an old-school funk.
Eventually I got a new job and reconnected with the friends I’d abandoned when I got into the ex-relationship. But the ex-relationship was still a daily source of ouch. My self-confidence was at record lows. I felt unlovable and ashamed that I’d let myself get so “down.” A vicious cycle was established: I felt bad that I felt bad, which made me feel bad, which made me feel bad, etc.
And slam poetry, my main creative outlet for so long, lost its pizzazz. I still hosted the weekly slam, but I didn’t give much of a shit about it. I enjoyed a couple of close friends I would see, and I appreciated the free beers the bartenders would pass me. But I didn’t watch the poets or their poems. And I sure as shit wasn’t writing anything new.
OK! Even I’m getting sick of this sad bastard ballad:
Fast forward about a year. I’m on my couch, playing with my new iPad (aka, my best friend) and thinking I should sign up for a class of some sort. But what kind?
I considered a dancing class. Despite measuring 6’3’’ and being marshmallow white, I’d always been a passable dancer. Thanks to advice from a friend in high school, I knew not to bite my lower lip and to focus less on my gangly arms and more on my hips. When the beat dropped, I didn’t look like Frankenstein’s monster. So yeah! Dancing! Let’s do that!
Except, wait! That meant actually moving around in front of strangers. I imagined that the class would probably be filled with lovey dovey engaged couples who were learning the foxtrot for their first dance as husband and wife. And I knew I’d be unable to perform when the dance floor was covered with my vomit.
What about art? Like, drawing and stuff? I’ve never been particularly good at sketching, and I certainly had never studied it. (Although, to my credit, in the fifth grade my painting of petunias won a Class Award and was featured at the Arlington Museum of Art for a week.)
So maybe there was hope! Except, wait! That defeated the purpose of taking a class. The purpose was to engage with the world and, let’s face it, meet some lovely single women who wouldn’t eventually fuck my next door neighbor. Painting petunias and oranges, while a noble pursuit, doesn’t force you to talk to the pretty girl. It’s a solitary endeavor.
Let’s face it even more: I was trying to meet ladies. One of my wisest friends, Matthew, had offered me some fantastic advice. Matthew told me simply, “Go do things you like, and you’ll meet women.”
Yeah! Things I like!
What do I like?
I like the piano, so maybe piano lessons again? I’d taken eight years of lessons when I was much younger. And I met my very first girlfriend when I attended Piano Camp the summer of my 4th-grade year. (Hilary Plank, if you’re reading this, please find me. I miss your arpeggios.) Except, no no no. The piano was also a solo activity, and I didn’t own a piano.
So I finally considered taking “acting classes.” In high school I’d practically defined the role of Mr. Green in the dinner theater production of Clue.
But a few things slowed me down. I’ve always thought of myself as a poor actor. I got cast in those high school shows because I was one of the few tall white guys in theater who could speak a sentence without burping. And I never played the lead. I was, at best, a “featured performer.”
But isn’t that what class is for, dummy? To get better at something you’re not good at? Yes, of course it is. So very well, I shall return to tread the boards! ACTING IT IS!
And then the word “improv” snapped into my brain. It was as simple as that. I didn’t know anyone who did improv. Sure, I used to schedule my VCR to record daily episodes of the British version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and my comedy geek bone fides were impeccable.
I’d seen only one live improv show ever. It was on a first date a couple of years before (not with the psychotic cheater) at ColdTowne. I’d picked it out of the Chronicle because it seemed like a charming, creative date idea. The show, whose audience my date and I constituted 33% of, was truly awful. Don’t ask me who or what it was, because I can’t remember. But it was bad. Real bad. My date hated every moment of it. But despite realizing how awful and unfunny the show was, I still found myself giggling. Because it was so fucking delightful that these people were doing something silly for six strangers and didn’t seem to give a shit that they were atrocious.
So I began Googling “improv comedy classes Austin.” The results were astounding. There were four theaters who did only improv? And there was The Hideout, which I’d heard of, and at which I used to do poetry open-mics! There was Salvage Vanguard, which I’d seen shows at! And there was ColdTowne, which was that place I took that girl that one time!
Being a nervous consumer when laying out more than $20 for something, I did my due diligence. I checked out Yelp reviews. I scanned the fine print on each theater’s website. I asked on Facebook if anyone had suggestions (no one did). And in the end I settled on Merlin Works, because “Shana Merlin was voted Best Improv Teacher by the Austin Improv Collective” (or something). The award impressed me, as did how she wrote about the “low pressure” atmosphere of her class. The price was right and I gave the website my credit card number (4054 2383 5188 2004).
The rest is history. More on that in a later post.
Improv didn’t save my life. But it has breathed new life into it. It has breathed new life into my life. Life into life. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes. I don’t know what I’m talking about now. So much typing.
But god, as if this blog weren’t proof enough that I love this damn thing…
*I should point out that, despite the title of this post, no God or supernatural force spoke to me. If it had, I imagine it would’ve suggested guitar lessons.