I Impulsively Signed Up for an Improv Class, and It Brought Me Back to Life

What am I doing? I am 31, and obviously not an aspiring actress. I envisioned a class of teenagers with blonde hair, well studied from years of training. Who was I to try and compete with that?
Publish date:
October 22, 2015
friends, loneliness, Improv

Ever since I was a teenager, I wanted to live in California. I think that's the curse of every East Coast girl. We grow up watching Barbie-like idols who surf and hobnob with celebrities, and we can’t help but feel like we are missing out on the better life.

Then again, I also wanted blonde hair and blue eyes, and for some reason it seemed like a move to California would bring me all of that. I was desperate for a change.

So, once I landed a dream job as a children’s librarian in the magical state, I knew I had to jump on it -- even though my CA expert and friend, Debby, told me that I would be working so far east that it would be like I was in Arizona. I had no idea what she meant at the time, but I do now. I work about 80 miles east of LA, and it often does feel like Arizona with the desert climate, hot temps, and conservative people.

When I first moved out there, I tried to meet people using Meetup, but after going on a few awkward-feeling first dates with 20-30 strangers, I felt even more alone. It can be exhausting to start over again with new people. What do you share? What do you keep to yourself? Who are you? These questions haunted me as I was set to establish myself in my first real career. And, in some ways they still do.

Since then, it has been almost two years of living the California life, alone. I do have a dream job that I really love, I work with kids to support and develop their love of reading. I am lucky to say that I love what I do. However, I would love my job even more if it were in a location closer to family or friends, or somewhere that would enable me to have more of a social life.

My work is exhausting at times, I pour all of myself into it. There is much more to being a librarian than just a love of books. I do storytimes where we dance and sing, and I help people develop their computer literacy skills. So, it was easy to settle into a routine of work, fast food on the way home, sitting in front of my computer reading Buzzfeed for hours, while Netflix looped in the background, and then eventually, bed.

I was completely fine continuing like this, until one day I took a chance and impulsively signed up for the improv 101 course at Upright Citizen’s Brigade -- because Amy Poehler, duh! -- that was starting in just three days.

Right after I hit send on my payment information and confirmed that I was taking the class, I started to panic. It was too late to cancel, as I was obviously taking the place of someone who had just dropped out. I felt a rush of emotions hitting me at once.

First of all, I hate making commitments, even if it is for something that I love. If someone told me that every Saturday I could play with puppies and eat ice cream all day, but I had to commit to doing it for a month, I would have serious reservations. Yes, it would be fun, but every week? It’s just a lot of commitment!

And then I was flummoxed with the big question -- what am I doing? I am 31, and obviously not an aspiring actress. I envisioned a class of teenagers with blonde hair, well studied from years of training. Who was I to try and compete with that?

I’ve never really been the type to step into the spotlight before. I mean, I am loud and silly. I frequently dance and sing in front of tons of little kids and their caretakers, but when it comes to having all eyes on me at improv, that was giving me the willies. While improv always intrigued me, it always seemed out of my reach, something for other people to participate in. I’ve always felt like this chubby nobody, and while I am funny in my quick quips or observational humor, it’s a whole other thing to stand in front of strangers and declare -- I am funny!

I was so nervous to attend, I felt like everyone would laugh at me or think I was stupid for even trying something like that. I signed up for the class on a whim with the belief that it would improve my storytimes, and help me at work. I believe that being able to think on my feet and being flexible are some of my best qualities for storytime with young kids, and I felt like the class would help me to expand those skills.

All of my nervousness melted away once we started; on a basic level, I would describe an improv class as getting together with 15 strangers and playing pretend -- something that I love to do. I was surprised that it could be so much fun, and it gave me something to look forward to each week. Even though I thought I would be in a class of experts, we were all newbies, just trying to reconnect with our lives in a brand new way.

Each class started with some improv games. Some of the games were fun, like when we stretched and shared stories of our life, or did quick monologues off of each other’s stories. Others were stressful, like playing a game where one person threw an imaginary knife and you had to catch it, while another person threw an imaginary Frisbee to someone else and they had to catch it, and then someone else threw an imaginary baby into the mix.

It sounds ridiculous, but it taught us the importance of eye contact with our partners, to be aware of what was happening in the scene, and how to communicate nonverbally. It’s much different to catch a Frisbee or a knife, and it was stressful throwing a pretend baby in the air when you knew that somewhere was a knife! My teacher, Dave Theune, really made sure that we were comfortable in class, and created an environment that let us lean into the silliness and somewhat awkwardness of trying something completely new. With the urge to be cool and trendy on social media, it is so empowering and freeing to be among others that ditched that pressure, and were ready to catch that imaginary Frisbee and toss it back.

After our warm up, we would start in on the scene work. The room is a blank white box with enough chairs for the students and the teacher, as well as 4 black prop chairs. Everything that happens there is what you create from it. I often tell children when we are crafting that they are only limited by their imagination, and this rang so true for me in this environment. The only tools we had to create the funny ideas and interesting places we went were our imaginations and creativity. They could take us out of that blank room and into a house infested with talking bed bugs or onto a wave as we surfed or into a car on a date from hell.

Some things didn’t come easy to me — I like to ask a lot of questions — which is great for work, but terrible for scene work, because those questions put your partner on the spot. I also tend to keep my hands on my hips or behind my back, but your hands are tools in improv; they need to be out and ready. I worried about talking too fast, as that can happen when I am nervous during storytimes, so I would purposely sink slowly into my scenes, and settle into the character that I was portraying, which gave me an added bonus in the long run, but in those moments, it made me feel awkward.

By my fifth week into the class, I started to let my guard down more. I was having such a good time, that I forgot that I was supposed to be the too-weird one. I stopped thinking that I was stupid, and started to make conversations with the strangers I was taking the class with. When one such stranger impulsively asked me to join her at a street fair in Venice, I surprised myself by saying yes. When another classmate mentioned seeing our teacher in his weekly show, Bangarang, and I surprised myself again by accepting the invitation. I exchanged numbers with these people, and they are now what I believe you would call friends.

After our last class, I convinced a bunch of my classmates to get some ice cream with me, and then a couple of us when for a drink and some real food. I can’t remember the last time I sat around a bar table and shared tidbits of my life with other people. I mostly sit alone at bars drinking my IPAs and eating sloppy burgers, my weekly treat on the drive home, for being brave.

Besides making actual friends, I have really come to love improv because of the openness of it. Anyone can do it. You don’t need to look a certain way, or be a certain type of person. You can improv the differences, for example, the blonde hair that I am after? Simply say to your teammates—“Look at the way my long, blonde hair flows in the wind.” Then boom! It’s all yours.

It’s really freeing to have a space where everyone can have fun. If you think about improv in an abstract way, it does seem terrifying. You go out there alone, with just your imagination and willingness to play. But, the improv class gives us all the tricks and framework that are needed, and along the way it helped to reawaken who I really am.

Suddenly, I am ready for new adventures, new friends, and seeing the next steps that my future will take. I just signed up for my second improv class, it’s worth the hour and a half drive, and three hours of class a week to remember that life is supposed to be fun. Life can take you on many twists and turns, and all you need is to hold on, say yes, and… the rest is what you make of it.