Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Zen of Improv: How to Make Sweet Love to Your Fear

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about 
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet

I know what it feels like to sit in an improv workshop wondering if everyone could hear my heart pounding or see the sure-to-be-flop sweat breaking out on my brow, so friggin’ nervous that I thought I might just shake off my seat. I’ve been there, and it took a long time to get past that place. One of the many gifts of improvisation is that we get repeated opportunities to face down our fears, over and over and over again, and come out of it alive. With Del Close’s command to “Follow your fear” and all that, fear is part of the deal we make with improvisation.

Recently, I had a workshop with some of my students that was outside their comfort zone, and I was reminded again how lucky improvisers are to get so much practice dealing with fear. Surely, this experience must translate positively to overcoming fear off the stage as well. What a gift improvisation gives us! In an effort to support my students on their journey, I’ve written down a whole slew of tips on dealing with fear. I’ll share it with you too in hopes that you find some of it useful.

Zen of Improv Tips on How to Make Sweet Love to Your Fear:

Fear speaks to us in the voice of the Evil Mind Meanies who, you may recall, just fuckin’ love to conjugate the verb “to suck” in our minds: “I suck, you suck, he/she sucks, we suck, you all suck, they suck.” You’re sitting there in improv class watching an exercise that seems scary, and those bastards start their chant in your brain. “Everyone is so much funnier than you. They’re so good. You suck. You’re going to fail miserably. Why even try? A hubcap is a better improviser than you.” And so on and so forth until you’re glued to your fold-out chair. Here is what you need to know: THE EVIL MIND MEANIES ARE BIG, FUCKING, LIAR-LIAR-PANTS-ON-FIRE, STUPIDHEAD LIARS! Do NOT believe a word they say. 

But on the off chance that you are very, very gifted in suckitude and the Evil Mind Meanies are correct that “everyone” is funnier/smarter/quicker/whatever-er than you are, try this on for size: So what if they are? What are you going to do about it? You could either quit now, or you could just get up and do the next exercise or scene anyway with the only risk being that you get better. (You can’t humiliate yourself any more than you already have if you suck that hard, so that’s not a risk.) Look, you paid for the class already, so why not get up and give it your best? You could always quit tomorrow.

As I talked about in The Job of Nice Person, when dealing with assholes – and fear in this case is the asshole – I try to employ the mantra: “Love. Compassion. Kindness. Benefit of the Doubt.” Though fear’s “You Suck” message is dead wrong, we can try to give it the benefit of the doubt and think that fear is trying to protect us under the mistaken impression that we need protection from the unknown in improvisation. (We do not. We need to love the unknown … otherwise, we should be doing sketch.) Love the fear. Have compassion that fear doesn’t understand the beauty of improvisation yet. Give it the benefit of the doubt that it’s trying to help us in the best way it knows how. Thank fear kindly, and then tell it (as lovingly as possible) to go fuck the fuck off.

Fear is selfish; its sole focus is to keep you in your head and in a state of inaction. Fear makes you think only about yourself, “I suck. I am the worst. Everyone is better than me. I should get the hell off the stage.” That game doesn’t work in improvisation, where your focus should be on your scene partners. Stop being selfish. Stop with all the I-thoughts. Stand up and do your job, which is to make your scene partners look brilliant.

It’s okay to have fear. David Pasquesi says that fear tells him what he’s about to do is important to him. Be grateful for fear. Say “Thank you, Fear” then “Fuck you, Fear,” and then go ahead and dive into whatever scares you anyway. My guru of brave Susan Messing says that being brave is “being scared as shit but doing it anyway with the result of flying.” 

I can’t think of a better place to practice “doing it anyway” than in a good improv class, which should be a safe, protected space where we’re training to be each other’s parachutes and soft landing pads. The very foundation of improvisation rests in the belief that our main job is to make each other look good - a Patronus charm that disempowers failure and, ultimately, makes it disappear. We are each other’s spirit guardians because our jobs are to make each other look like geniuses, artists, and poets. 

As long as you get out there, you cannot fail because everyone else is working hard to make you look brilliant. You cannot fail because failure doesn’t exist in improvisation. (More on that in a bit.) But you have to get out there. Do it anyway because next time it will be so much easier. And the time after that, easier still. Until eventually, you forget to what made you so afraid in the first place.

My relationship with fear goes way back. I was a pretty fearful little kid. I was tiny in size, with the powerlessness that comes with childhood but wise enough to realize how deeply fucked the human race can be. I think that must have made me into an anxious kid because I remember telling my mom ten thousand reasons why I couldn’t do something new. And she always countered, “What’s the worst that can happen?” 

So you’re sitting in the classroom and the exercise the teacher is describing sounds confusing and scary. “What’s the worst that can happen?” I’ve ask this of my students, and here are some of the most popular answers:

“I’ll suck.” So what? Plus, you won’t suck … but if you do, you’ll learn from it, which is the point of an improv class, right? So that’s not really sucking. 

“I’ll shit my pants.” That would be awesome. I mean, not for you at that moment, but eventually it will make a really fucking hilarious story if you actually shit your pants in class. Plus, you’re not going to crap your pants. And just to be on the safe side, poop before class and bring an extra pair of jeans in your bag to class.

“I’ll humiliate myself.” If they're worth their salt, your teacher is working hard to make sure this doesn’t happen. Your scenemates are supposed to be working hard to make you look good as well. So you would have to work triple hard to humiliate yourself. But you know what is kind of embarrassing? Staying in your seat while everyone goes up to try out the exercise. 

“I’ll make a fool of myself.” Um, isn’t that part of the job? We’re all fools. C’mon, get on the Joyride of Fools with us, my friend.

“I will die.” Yes, that is the very worst that could happen. No, you will not die. (But come to think of it, I can't think of a place I'd rather die than laughing with my friends.) 

So what is the worst that can happen?

Improvisation redefines and disempowers failure. In the classroom, failure doesn’t exist at all. If you are “shitty” in the scene, then the audience might laugh (which is not the worst effect to have in a comedy show). If you make a “mistake,” that might give your scene partners a delicious gift to take advantage off. (Also, not so bad.) And even in performance, you cannot possibly know if you are failing or not until the show is over. (More on why this isn't such a bad thing in the Non-Judgment in Improv trio of essays.)

Sometimes we forget that we, the improvisers, define failure differently than than audience. If we’re doing a guessing game, like Late of Work for example, the audience thinks our “success” or “failure” hinges on guessing why we’re late for work, who helped us get there, and how we got to work. But like a magician's audience following the moving hand rather than seeing the secret to the trick, the improv audience is wrong. The object of the short form game is not to guess why you’re late for work or to be the best gibberish interpreter or to think of a gazillion rhymes for “Sue” or whatever “winning” might look like to the audience at face value. The object is to have fun. The object is to entertain. The object is to improvise well. Which leads me to understand that the only way to fail in improvisation is not to get up and improvise.

Fear is trying to cheat you out of your joyride, and that’s just not cool. Turn down the Evil Mind Meanies and turn up the fun meter. Where is the fun in this exercise? How are you going to get off in this scene? Fun is the antidote to fear. So if we’re feeling like we're going to shit our pants, let’s try to shift our focus on finding the fun and getting off harder than anyone. (Naturally, this tip is deeply inspired by the Queen of the Joyride, Susan Messing.)

Read that one again. See? It’s the Golden Rule in reverse. (Would that be the Nedlog Rule? Also, could that last joke be any dumber? I think not. You’re welcome.) If only we were as supportive and compassionate with ourselves as we are with our friends and teammates! If your best friend was freaking out about sucking, what would you tell them?

Now tell yourself all that stuff. Because it’s just as true.

Rarely do we step on stage absolutely convinced we’re going to kick major ass. And the one time I do have that much confidence is sure to be the show that ends in a hideous ball of flames. The only way I can take the stage is if I lie to myself, make myself believe the delusion that I am capable of improvising well. In short, fake it ‘til you make it. Chances are, you will make it.

Losing control is a real big fear for me. But if I improvise from a place of fear of losing control, I know that I'll try to steer the scene and basically fuck it up for everyone. It would be nice to have control in improvisation, but we don’t .... which is nicer still. We simply don’t have any control over the scene (or life), which is as terrifying as it is liberating and exhilarating. To me, “Follow your fear” means to do the thing I fear the most, which is letting go of trying to control the moment. Once I do that, I am immediately gifted with the possibility of participating in the groupmind. And that makes all my improv ladyparts get all warm and buzzy. As far as I’m concerned, the beauty of the scene that we’re discovering together as a group is the biggest high around. And the only way I can get my fix is by letting go of the wheel.

Instead of “fighting the fear,” maybe we could try out the simple act of being curious. In the face of fear of giving up control, a State of Helpful Curiosity would have me ask myself, “What would it be like to let go and ride this moment wherever it wants to go?” 

I can’t force myself not to be afraid, but I can quite simply ask myself this question: “What would it be like not to be afraid to do this next exercise or scene?” 

So maybe all our fears are correct, and we are about to walk into a shitstorm of epic proportions? If so, let’s go out there and fail more spectacularly than we’ve ever failed before! Wheeee! Apparently, Del Close used to tell a story about a guy parachuting out of an airplane who discovered that his parachute was irreparably broken. It was at that point that this very enlightened poor bastard spent the rest of the ride down doing the most beautiful acrobatics in the air. Crazy, right? Relax into the train wreck ahead, commit hard to the shitstorm, take joy in the freefall, explore how easy it is to fail … and, most of the time, it turns out to be quite beautiful. A very soft landing indeed.

If you ever see me on show night while watching the act before mine, especially they’re killing, please know that as much as I’m enjoying the crap out of their set, the Evil Mind Meanies are in my head working hard to convince me that I suck and I’ve suddenly forgotten how to improvise. But then the audience starts clapping and it’s my team's turn to go up, and so I have to let go and I do as Del Close instructed, I take the stage and “Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” 

The very basis of improvisation promises that we make each other look good, that we give in to the power of the show, that we discover the scene together through groupmind. Personally, I believe that improvisation (and The Universe) wants us to succeed and have more fun than anyone. Fear makes me sometimes forget that belief. If we remember to have trust and faith in improvisation to fulfill that promise, we leave no room for fear.


If you are interested in exploring some of these ideas further, 
check out the three-part

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?
Like the one where Susan Messing said on brave 
"is being scared as shit 
but doing it anyway with the result of flying." 


Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, teacher, consultant, and nice person. She is the founder and Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, the epicenter of improv in Western Mass, where Pam teaches The Zen of Improv to the best students in the world as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program.  TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."   She lives online at

Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.

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