The Problem with Fear

By Randall | Improv in Life, Improv Tips
17 Apr 2012

About a month ago,  I went out for a walk. Early on, I passed a stranger on the street who held eye contact for slightly longer than normal, so I said “Hello” and he said “Hi” back. Even something as simple as that, just being acknowledged by a stranger, had a significant impact on my mood. I felt open, ready to connect with the city, and talk to anyone I happened to come across. This was just what I had been working on in workshop and class, focusing on Meisner techniques, and it felt great! Until I got to the park.

Piedmont Park is a large park in Midtown Atlanta, bustling with activity during the day, but that night it was dark and desolate, and closed. I entered anyway because that was the route I had planned. I was a little scared – this was a secluded place where I could easily get accosted, or where a security guard could throw me out for trespassing. Not rational fears, but ones I get anyway when I’m where I’m not supposed to be late at night, in the dark (it probably didn’t help that this song was playing on my iPod at that moment). Almost immediately, I noticed a change. I felt closed off, defensive, and unwilling to connect with anyone. If I had passed someone, I would have hurried past with my eyes downcast and my arms folded across my body.

Connection is at the heart of improv. People come to see scenes about relationships, to see human behavior played out on stage. We need to connect with our fellow improvisers when we are doing a show in order to portray these relationships, and having fear makes forming those connections much more difficult to do.

If you  are afraid of going on stage, you will struggle with doing solid, grounded scenes. And you have two choices – be courageous (acknowledge the fear, then venture forward anyway) or become fearless (actually stop being afraid). I think that the second one is less a “choice” and more a product of experience. Do enough shows and you will either become confident that you can improvise yourself out of any situation and escape failure, or you will fail hard enough that you realize that life goes on and it’s really not something to be afraid of.

Consider the source of your fear. If you are afraid of performing, of getting in front of an audience, hopefully that is something that a successful show can help you with. If you are afraid of being on stage with your fellow improvisers, then that needs some reflection. If you are part of a jam or a theatre with a large troupe, then you will constantly be performing with new people and unknown elements. Focus on supporting them, on doing your best to make them look good, listening super hard, and not getting too attached to your ideas during a scene, as your partner may not be willing to go along with them if they don’t know you yet.

If you are in a more established ensemble and are still struggling with fear, that could be fruit growing from a seed of a lack of trust. Do you not trust them to support you and commit on stage? Do you not trust them to accept you as you are and love you no matter how good or bad any given scene is? You should not feel like you are performing for your fellow troupe members (they aren’t the ones paying to see you), nor should you feel like you are constantly trying out, trying to prove something – your worth or value as a performer or a person. No matter what you do on stage, you still have value as a person. If you feel these things when you perform, some ensemble building exercises might help. You could have everyone share meaningful stories from their past, or bring in and present objects that have special sentimental value to them. Once you and your fellow improvisers see each other as people, once you have been humanized, then you are more likely to look out for each other and take care of each other on and off stage.

For a similar story, check out Simplicity by Sunny.

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  1. Gillian Goodman says:

    I found this very helpful. I’m going to try to read it a few more times once in awhile so it really sinks in, especially before the next Richard Kickers that I keep saying I’m going to go to that I keep not going to.

  2. Gillian Goodman says:

    And thanks for writing and sharing that, Randall!

  3. Randall says:

    Richard Kickers can be a tough environment, but is also a great place to challenge yourself to face your fears and break out of your comfort zone. I’m going back in a couple weeks, after my Tuesday night class ends. See you there!

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