Improv is (mostly) controlled by fear

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.

Help me!

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.

Scary?

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.

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About improvmantra

What is an improv mantra? An improv mantra is a phrase you repeat to yourself just before you go on stage, and continue to keep in your mind while you are in a scene. An effective mantra makes you a better improviser. Todd Erler, like all living creatures, has been doing improv every day since he was born. He has been performing improv on stage for more than 20 years. He is a teacher, writer, musicain, director, actor, and member of The Portable Reality Show.
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2 Responses to Improv is (mostly) controlled by fear

  1. Mandy says:

    This is all so true… This part hit me especially: “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.”

    Getting up to DO improv is half the battle. TRULY doing improv, and letting all of the rest of the crap go is a hard thing to do, and is very scary. And the deep seeded need to be validated and liked is ingraned so deeply in all of us… I would say especially improvisers. And sometimes the scariest part of a show/performance is the after-math. The feedback from your fellow improvisers. They are the true people that you want to be validated by, and there is always a fear that you won’t be – even if you know in your heart that you could have done better.

    It’s just like my fear of singing onstage. It took me so very long to break that barrier. And the biggest part is that singing in front of someone is a very deeply personal and intimate thing for me. Forget the fact that I could get onstage and pretend to be naked in a hot tub, or be a neurotic scientist’s assistant with OCD no problem – sing in front of people? Come ON! But once I got over the fear that my fellow improvisers would not let me fail (or not let me fail alone!) it became so much easier. Yes, it was still scary, and I got sick to my stomach every time, but through the fear I started to find enjoyment.

    I wouldn’t be an improviser at all if I hadn’t have stared fear in the face back in 2003 and told it that I didn’t care. That’s when I got on step, shaking hands and churning stomach to do my first show. And as soon as it started, I was hooked.

    I miss it like crazy! — longest comment ever. Sorry! 😛

    • improvmantra says:

      Yes. Fear never truely goes away. We might be less afraid of something, but there is always something else which will terrify us. I think as improvisers we need to be aware of this fear, because when we are aware we can use it. We can continue to push ourselves as improvisers and not settle for just doing what we know we will be successful doing.

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