Most (if not all) improv acting you see or participate in is controlled by fear.
Fear, according to dictionary.com is a biological response “aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc… whether real or imaged” and (although it may not appear that way to your standard audience) pretty much every improviser is controlled by and hampered by fear.
It is my experience that when an improv scene “fails” (ie it is boring, not going anywhere, or seems to be going on too long) it is due to fear.
Here is the paradox: improv is about fear, fear kills improv.
Here is the insidious part about fear: fear isn’t about the now. We can deal with the now. Fear is about the future, the “impending danger” the unknown.
How do we mitigate fear in our everyday lives? We attempt control: we plan ahead, we hedge our bets, and we avoid risk. Although these might be good things for us to do in real life (I said might), these are death to any improv scene.
In improv we don’t want to avoid risk, instead we want to drive toward the danger. Crazy person on park bench? Talk to them. Ask the woman who clearly doesn’t love me to get married? Hell yes! Rob the bank? Sounds good to me! These are the very staples of improv. In improv we head boldly to the unknown in scenes.
But really, that’s just level one.
Most improvisers getting up there to perform have passed through level one. Most improvisers are great at pretending to be fearless on stage. They drive fearlessly off the cliff. They sing loudly and badly. They make inappropriate comments to their bosses.
So, if improvisers are good at acting fearless, why then do scenes still fail? To answer that we have to go deeper.
Scenes still fail because of a deeper fear that lurks under the surface: the fear of not being loved. Improvisers dread this fear. It stalks us in a scene when nobody is laughing, when the stage is silent, when a scene seems to falls flat. Suddenly, instead of bold warriors, we are sweaty little children looking to cower in the wings. Why don’t they like me? We think.
So although most improvisers seem fearless, they have just developed excellent risk avoidance techniques. Sure, we boldly go into the unknown in a scene, but we do it with a funny character, or we learn tricks to help move the plot along, or with most improv, we make sure our scenes are too short to cause us to stray anywhere too dangerous. We are only fearless to a point.
And when the fear still strikes, we attempt control, avoid risk, plan ahead (“get in our heads” in the parlance of improv), and hedge our bets.
The more we fear, the more we control, the more we control, the more the scene fails, the more the scene fails, the greater the fear…. Fear feedback loop!
Louder! Faster! Funnier!
And so, most improv is stuck: short, funny scenes that mean very little.
So, if fear is biological, and we all feel it, but fear kills improv, is it hopeless?
Yes, it is….
Just kidding! Up next, what to do about our old friend fear.