What I Learned About Indecision and Anxiety In Six Weeks of Improv

It’s better — and cheaper — than therapy

Mark Samsonovich

I wanted to do improv for, like, five years

I kept putting it off as “someday,” which, because I now know how much I like it, is another great testament to why we should not postpone things we think we’d like or foster “bucket lists.” Those were years I could’ve been doing this… lol.

“Five years” is a total guestimation. In reality I have no idea how long I wanted to, and moreover I have absolutely no idea where I got the inclination. I can’t even tell you why I finally pulled the trigger — and that was only six weeks ago.

I do, however, recall what I wanted from it. It wasn’t “to get good at improv” (confession: I didn’t even like watching it before this) or even “to be funny,” or “have fun.” Rather, I wanted:

To stop procrastinating by calling it “planning” or waiting for “the perfect thing/time.” To get over myself; get out of my head.

To feel less anxious and more certain. To “just do it!”

And while I don’t remember why I thought improv would help, I do know “I’ve always thought I’d like it.”

And six weeks, four shows (as an audience member) and one workshop (participant) later, I do.

The Intoxication of Improv

After my first class, I came home and reported to my partner a tentative: “I like it…” I was pretty sure but it was hard to tell, especially with my nerves still wearing off. I felt “good,” but left it at that.

But by the second week, I was definitely hooked. After class, I spent hours watching improv on Youtube (did you know there’s a Youtube improv show?), then woke up early the next morning to watch more. I went to a show that night — I’d seen others before, but this was my first after doing it — and I absorbed everything I could. The day after, I attended a workshop with an instructor from Chicago. It was “advanced” but I didn’t care; I just went. And loved it.

I left every class and workshop feeling energized and happy; more confident each week than the one before.

Of course, not everyone feels the same way.

Heidi Priebe wrote about “trying hard to love improv” for a whole year, eventually concluding,

“I just wasn’t cut out for improv. The longer I kept at it, the clearer this fact became. It was not stress-relieving or skill-building or life-changing for me.”

I read that and thought, say what? First of all, why the hell would you spend a year doing a hobby you didn’t love? But that aside… how could you not love this?

But apparently that’s not uncommon. When I asked two of my favorite classmates if they were moving on to the next level, they both shrugged at me like “I guess — I’ve got nothing better going on.” I was shocked.

I don’t know how you couldn’t get “stress relief” and “confidence” and “fun” out of improv. I am multitudes more open, more expressive, more secure in my skin.

And I’m no Amy Poehler — not even close, obviously — but my feelings toward improv is closer to what she said in Yes Please on the beginning of her career:

“I would ride my bike to shows while listening to the Beastie Boys. I was 22 and I had found what I loved.”

I wasn’t yet doing improv when I first read that, so at the time, I didn’t really understand the feeling.

Now I do.

I, too, would ride my bike — granted, different kind— to shows while hearing something like “Right Right Now Now” in my head. And I, too, had found something I loved.

And here’s what I’ve learned (and loved) about anxiety and uncertainty and indecision in improv:

1.) Action Resolves Anxiety

i.e. FREAKING DO SOMETHING!

And as my instructor barked impatiently,

“Stop overthinking! That’s BULLSHIT!”

You do not need to be “sure!” Just get out there!

Left to my devices, my natural inclination is to hang back, watch, analyze, observe, waiting forever for the “right” thing and the “right” moment to do it. Life doesn’t wait for you to “decide,” and “deliberating” means absolutely nothing — only doing does.

It feels good to pretend that deliberation makes our eventual move better, but it doesn’t. It’s just mental masturbation.

We build only by doing. Nothing ever gets done by “thinking.” “Thinking” is procrastination. Getting it right is only built through repetition, and the more you hang back, the more time you lose to build what you want.

There is no room for anxiety, or perfection, or “waiting” or indulging in “uncertainty.” Everyone’s uncertain — nobody has any idea how an improv scene will unfold. They lean on connection and energy and momentum.

We are bundles of energy, and the longer we stand still, the more that energy winds up in itself, getting tangled and toxic and messy. Think of any other physiological feeling — from anger to arousal — and what happens when it feeds on itself without release.

The only way to move past anything is action. So freaking do something.

2.) Use what you have

Look, life isn’t here to hand you the perfect scenario, and everyone you admire had partial and imperfect starting points.

If you hang back waiting for the perfect moment to jump in, or until you have total certainty, life is going to pass you by, and at the end of it all, you’re still going to be against the wall, watching for the time to jump in and realizing that you never took it.

Take whatever you have in front of you. Work with whatever you’ve got.

The rest will evolve and reveal itself from there — but only if you use it!

I’ve seen great scenes built out of horrible suggestions. And we all know great entrepreneurs who built empires out of lower-class childhoods, lack of education, or minimal resources.

“The thing” doesn’t matter nearly as much as your skill set at experimentation. VC’s always say that they,

“Invest in the person, not the idea.”

Do the same with you — the idea doesn’t matter as much as the action and iterations.

3.) Everything is iterative and built over time

Your first move will always be weaker than your 10th or 100th or nth move, and a move you deliberated over for years will never be as good as where someone who attempted a half-baked move years before now is — because they’ve been building on it ever since.

People you admire accomplished more not because they started with more, but because they were better at experimenting, iterating and evolving over time. They threw themselves out there again and again, and they learned from it.

Nobody remembers the first line of a scene. Nobody gives a shit what your first move is. None of that matters — the magic is in the evolution.

4.) Inertia and energy is invaluable

Movement — especially physical — is everything.

It took me a month to get comfortable using my body. I hated the physical work. During the first class, I barely moved, hoping to hide behind other players when we pretended to be a monster or make sounds.

By week 4, I was a lot more comfortable — and realized how incredibly energizing our bodies can be. It’s not about being “silly” or making an ass of yourself or enduring embarrassment. It’s recognizing that your body and you are attached to one another; it’s becoming re-associated with it and comfortable in your skin.

I am now convinced that everyone actually likes working out — and I say this as someone who has to drag myself through all 20 minutes at the gym.

I realize now that a reluctance to move is disassociation; it’s disengagement with our selves. I realize now that the body actually has a very strong inclination for movement; the body loves to move. It’s us that denies ourselves this, because we’d rather sink into ourselves and be black holes of “I’m good here.”

But when we get comfortable and yield a little, we realize that movement is incredibly energizing. We have to want it and feel comfortable in our skin, though that’s a bit chicken and egg.

If something fails and falls on its face, it’s okay — there’s another one right after it. As long as you keep going.

5.) You will make mistakes — deal with it

Literally nobody will care as long as you keep going.

We are human beings, and we mess up from time to time. But what matters isn’t the mistake, but how you handle it.

I’ve seen improv actors stutter during crowded shows, or mishear one another, or unknowingly reference “Juilliard” as a culinary school. But literally none of these matter and nobody cares as long as the actors keep rolling — in fact, they can even be funny and worked in, if partners are savvy and have rapport.

What’s tragic isn’t mistakes, but when actors subsequently crumble, cave, “can’t possibly” and fall into themselves. That’s what’s cringeworthy.

We have to shake it off, move on, and keep going.

6.) But don’t force it

And don’t double down when it’s not working.

During one show I attended, one player kept rushing out on to stage, hijacking other people’s scenes to redo the same obnoxious, loud character. He repeated the same line over and over, refusing to hear what others said — including being “kicked out” and even given death threats (towards his character. Mostly.)

During “notes” after the show, he admitted he’d messed up, then tried to explain by saying: “nobody got my joke in the previous scene.”

And like, dude… I get it, man — we all do — but don’t be that guy.

If something’s not working, and you’re operating from a place of panic or flailing, you need to get over yourself, let it go, and move on to something else.

7.) Have fun… damn.

Everything is so much better if you go all in and enjoy it; if you don’t hang out leaned against the back wall, kicked back and “waiting for the right moment.”

Improv is pretty much the entire universe in an hour — an infinite number of possibilities that all hinge on what you say or do; the way you say it; the way you listen; that little look. Countless things that can happen — and will keep on happening.

If you only jump in and play.

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