Fear kills improv. Although it might seem paradoxical, most (if not all) improv you see or participate in is controlled by and hampered by fear. Fear is a biological fact. We all feel it, and if any improviser claims that they don’t feel fear, they are most probably lying to someone.
It has been my experience that the any time I see a “bad” improv scene I can trace it back to fear.
What were they afraid of?
How does fear manifest itself in scenes? So glad you asked. Here is my short list of ways that fear kills improv scenes stated as actual things I have seen while watching improv:
“Did you go to the party last night?” – The open ended and (frankly) bland question. The improviser asks questions to avoid establishing things in a fear that he might “do something wrong.”
“As a cat, I prefer the rye bread.” – The overly silly offer. Improvisers who do this are afraid of revealing something personal about themselves.
“But, you can’t talk, you’re a duck.” – The attempt to rationalize a scene. While it might be a challenge to be in a scene with a talking duck, the improviser who attempts to rationalize a scene is afraid of losing control.
“You are always late!” – The improviser says this one with scorn toward her scene partner. Anger in improv is another way people try to control a scene. If I am angry then I don’t have to be emotionally vulnerable.
“Well, I don’t know…” – The waffle. Improvisers who do this are afraid of committing themselves to a decision because it might not be good enough.
“I’m not a plumber, I’m a proctologist.” – The gag/ comment. Improvisers who gag are afraid of not being liked by the audience.
What should we do about fear?
Fear is biological and I sincerely doubt it can ever be truly eradicated. No, unfortunately fear is like your obnoxious roommate, regardless of what you do, he will always show up at your parties.
Where’s the good stuff?
Instead, I suggest you make friends with fear. Greet fear, when he shows up, like the brother he is. Embrace fear and use it.
Hello fear, I know I am terrified, but I am going out on stage anyway, and you are coming with me!
Drag fear out with you into the lights. If improv is really about what you bring with you, without any filter or preplanning, then you are already bringing fear with you.
Since you have it, you might as well use it. Don’t just use it, find it, and dance with it.
Actually, fear is a pretty sharp dancer.
HOLD ON Todd! Wait, you said fear kills improv. Now you told me I am supposed to greet fear, befriend fear, dance with fear (and we all know what dancing leads to)…
But fear kills improv!
What the hell?!?
Ok. I’ll talk about that next.