Someone in the audience calls out the word “giraffe.” It’s my turn to give a monologue. The perspiration starts. My entire body begins shaking. My mind goes blank. Literally nothing. I stumble on some words and then burst into tears. “I can’t think of anything to say,” I whimper to the audience.” They aren’t sure whether this is part of my “act.” I cover my head with my hands and run off stage crying.
Then I wake up. This has been my recurring nightmare since I signed up for improv 101 at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade a month ago.
I’m always up for a new challenge to push my boundaries and expand my comfort zone. In the past couple of years, I had already attended a 10-day silent meditation, jumped out of a plane to face my fear of heights, traveled by myself to Colombia to learn salsa, and though terrified of flipping over and drowning, trapped under my kayak, I spent a week learning to ride the waves on a river in Montana
On a Tuesday night in September, I was having dinner with a high school friend who told me about a course he had recently taken at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, an Improvisational and Sketch Comedy Training Center in New York City, more commonly known as UCB.
“You should do it!” he encouraged.
“Not my thing.” I quickly changed the subject. As my stomach went into knots and my throat tightened, I immediately recognized the familiar feeling of fear pervading my body. But this time it was almost overwhelming. Improv class was the one thing I told myself I could never face in this lifetime.
People who know me have a hard time believing that I am so terrified of performing because I am a professional musician/performer. I play solo violin with a rock band in arenas to thousands of people when I’m on tour. But that doesn’t make me nervous because I am somewhat in control – I learn my music ahead of time and can feel prepared. Improv is the opposite.
The day after dinner with my friend, I took a CPR course. But this was not the boring 8-hour class I was expecting. The bald-headed teacher who bore a strong resemblance to Tweety Bird kept the class laughing as we learned how to save lives. I later found out he was also a stand up comedian who had been trained at UCB. My heart sank. This was the second sign in two days.
The day after the CPR course, I woke up, checked my email, opened the Huffington Post and the very first article staring at me was, “How Improv Made Me a Better Person,” written by a woman who had taken classes at UCB. Through improv she had become more confident, less fearful and had learned to be more present in every day life.
Being a believer in fate, I could no longer avoid the signs. The Universe was telling me this was something I needed to do. So an hour later I signed up online for an intensive 2-week course (4 days a week, 3 hours a day) which would conclude with a performance for the public.
With one month to mentally prepare, I watched video after video on Youtube of final performances of other improv 101 classes. Some performances were funny, some not so much. But I found my confidence slightly returning, thinking I could possibly pull it off, at least to some degree.
On the first day of class, I walked thirteen blocks from my apartment to the East Village UCB to see what was in store for me. I was in the wrong place. Classes took place in the West side location. I jumped in a cab and made it to class 20 minutes late, just in time to not get locked out.
There were 12 students and my instructor, Zach, who was young and thin with a curly blond mop. At 39, I was by far the oldest in my class except for a tall, 60-year old nerdy woman with short curly grey hair and glasses. I tried to comfort myself by saying that she seemed way more out of place here than I did. She was a computer programmer wanting to switch careers into acting. People were already forming cliques. I didn’t fit into any. I felt too old to be in this class and everyone except for me was an actor and/or wannabe comedian.
Our first exercise was to learn each others’ names.
“Think of an adjective that starts with the same letter as your name and make a movement with your body,” said Zach. All I could think of was Amazing and Awesome. But there were two other people with A’s in the class that took those adjectives before it was my turn.
As usual in these types of situations for me, my mind drew a blank. I couldn’t think of any other “A” words.
“Shit, shit shit!” I screamed in my head while the girl next to me jumped in the air and clapped her hands saying, “Magnificent Melissa.” It was now my turn. I was still drawing a blank. “Think of something,” I demanded to my brain.” There was an awkward silence as the class waited for me.
“Just say anything,” pressed Zach.
“Ummm…”I paused. “ANTEATER!” I blurted out, almost relieved that I could think of something. I locked my hands in front of me and moved them from side to side like a stiff anteater trunk as I said “Anteater Asha.” The class then repeated my name and movement. I then berated myself. “Anteater isn’t an adjective! It’s a noun! How can you be so stupid!?” I said in my head.
As soon as my turn was over, the A adjectives came flooding into my head: Active, Adorable, Adventurous, Affectionate, Agreeable, Amusing, Appealing, Awkward. And of course, the one I yearned to be “Accepted Asha.”
The name game was just the warm-up. The three hours of games and activities had the other students laughing and goofing around. I, on the other hand, was extremely uncomfortable, sweating and wanting to run out of the class. This was anything but fun or funny to me.
It was during this first day that I decided on a strategy. I would always volunteer first, which was not usually my style. I knew the longer I waited for my turn, the more nervous I would be and the more dread I would have, constantly comparing myself to everyone before me.
So when it was time for a monologue exercise on the first day, I volunteered. Four of us were on stage. We each picked something we really loved or really hated and had to continue talking until the teacher pointed at someone else. This would continue until everyone had gone several times, each time lasting well over a minute. For someone whose mind tends to go blank when put on the spot, a minute is an eternity.
I chose sugarless gum. I rambled about all the flavors I like, how I have 3-4 packs of different flavors on me at all times, using gum to prevent cavities, to hang posters, how a boy spit gum in my hair at camp, and other random stories, all of which were true.
Each morning we would start with about 15 minutes of warm up exercises, usually movement based games to get everyone loosened up. “Repeat what you see and hear,” was a class favorite. It was similar to the game “Telephone.” The teacher started by making a noise with a small body movement. The next person in the circle repeated the noise and movement and by the time it circles around, the noise and movement have completely changed
And then came the theme of the day. For example: “Yes and…” – This was the foundation for improv – taking what somebody said, accepting it, then taking it a step further with more information. One person might say, “I have your ring.” The next person might say, “YES, you do have my ring…and I’m so happy you remembered to bring it to our wedding.” The first player might then say, “YES I did bring it to our wedding and I can’t wait to celebrate tonight…” and so on.
Scenes usually lasted about five minutes. Afterwards came critiques from the teacher. Many times in these beginning scenes, I would stumble on words. Or reprimand myself for saying something that was dumb.
“Nothing you say can be wrong.” To be good at improv, you have to throw away your inhibitions. No need for second-guessing everything you say.”
Easier said than done.
There was not a morning during this first week that I contemplated not going to class or skipping out early and never coming back. But I knew I would feel like a failure. During the second week, my brother and sister in law were visiting with my nephews. On that Monday, I was almost in tears not wanting to go. My 6-year old nephew Edmond gave me a pep talk. “Asha, you can do it. It’s only another week. I want to see your performance at the end.” If I didn’t follow through, this would be a very poor example for the boys.
During this second week, I found a singing exercise quite enlightening. We formed a circle and the teacher started off by singing a song. As soon as a word in the song reminded us of another song, someone else would jump in and sing a new song. The group’s job was to sing (or fake it along to the music), so you were never “left out there alone” or singing solo. Most people, like me, didn’t know many lyrics to songs, so as a team we needed to help our teammates out as quickly as possible and get them out of the middle.
It was during this exercise I realized that we were all here to support each other. I felt grateful when someone “saved” me from the middle and I enjoyed helping others out of the hotspot. The group began to bond, and as I got to know them better, several confided to me that they were very nervous. “It’s not easy putting yourself out there, worried about judgment and trying to make people laugh,” said one of the 21 year old girls who was about to graduate from an acting program. Although she had been acting since age 8, she had never before taken an improv class. This was out of her comfort zone as well.
I was glad to not feel alone. I decided to just chill out. It wasn’t my aim in life to be a comedian. I didn’t need to be the best. In fact I was okay with being the worst – a new experience for me, as I am quite competitive. We were all there to learn.
Two days before the final performance, rehearsals for our show began. We split into two teams of six. A classmate on the other team would call out a word, “Sandwiches.”
From that word, I began my practice monologue…
“When I hear the word sandwiches it reminds me of ziplock bags because I used to carry my sandwiches in them every day to school. And Ziplock bags make me think of my recent trip to Israel.”
“My grandparents both passed away in the last couple years. My grandparents had been cremated and were sitting in urns on my piano. I was leaving for Israel for 2 weeks with friends. I knew it was a trip my grandparents had always wanted to take. So I decided to open their urns, put a cup of them each in their own ziplock bags and bring them with me. With a sharpie, I wrote “Grandma” on one and “Grandpa” on the other.”
To make the monologue at least a minute, I filled in the story with how I snuck them through security at the airport and was worried they would be mistaken for drugs. I told of all the places I brought my ziplock bags – to the Dead Sea, to a Kibbutz, to a Shabbat dinner, to the Western Wall, and even out to a nightclub where I introduced my Grandma to a nice Jewish boy I had just met
While I spoke, the rest of the team listened for words or ideas that stuck out to them in the monologue. When I was finished, two students at a time on my team immediately jumped out and initiated three separate scenes based on something within the monologue. The first was a scene about putting strange things in ziplock bags. For the second scene, two more of my teammates created a scene about sneaking random things through a security line at an airport. And the third scene was about taking deceased people to strange places like a dinner party or a dance.
I was much better at monologues than at the actual scenes because I found it easier to talk about a personal experience than to improvise off another person in a scene. Monologues, as you can tell, can be completely random and only loosely based on a word that is called out. And they don’t have to be funny. The funny parts usually come from the scenes based on them. So whenever I had a chance I would volunteer for a monologue.
For our final performance in front of a real audience, I jumped out to do the first monologue, I began sweating, shaking and stepped to the front of the stage. Someone in the audience yelled out the word “nightmare.” How appropriate.
And so I began…telling the story of why I signed up for this class beginning with a fateful day 15 years ago.
“I am afraid of so many things. But after a diagnosis of breast cancer when I was 24, I decided to start facing my fears, to start truly living life and live it as fully as I could. This meant challenging myself in ways that were way outside my comfort zone.”
I told of the signs leading up to my signing up for the improv class and the struggle I had during the classes of blanking out. I spoke of dreading going to class every day and especially this moment right now of performing in the show. And I spoke of my recurring nightmare leading up to this monologue.
I looked out into the small audience and there sat my brother, sister-in-law and my two nephews with big smiles on their faces, excited to see Aunt Asha perform. The audience was composed almost entirely of friends and family of the performers, so I was pretty sure they would be fairly sympathetic and kind.
I concluded my monologue by looking at the woman who called out the word.
“So I want to thank you for calling out this word, for helping me overcome my fears and helping making this nightmare become a reality.
My monologue was not what you would call funny. But that was ok. People clapped. My classmates proudly grinned. They knew this was difficult for me but they were right there beside me, cheering me on silently. Some told me afterwards that my monologue had been “riveting.”
“You did it!” my 4-year old nephew Clayton screamed from the 5throw. I certainly had. A challenge that I never thought I could face in this lifetime was behind me. The combination of nerves, excitement, fear, and freedom knowing that there is no such thing as “fucking up” in improv was a rush. I almost liked it!
“You did pretty good,” said my 6-year old nephew, Edmond, squeezing my hand as we exited the building.
Will I become a comedian? Never say never, but never.
Will I ever take another improv class? Probably not.
Did it cure my stage fright? Somewhat.
Did it help build my confidence? Absolutely.
Would I recommend it to others? 100%.