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April 10, 2015

Failing at Failing

I joined an improv class tonight. It's an eight week class and I realized yesterday that I will miss *three* of those eight classes next month, and had about a day and a half to debate over whether to do it anyway.

I have a couple reasons for wanting to do the class.

1) I like acting and did improv informally for a while many years ago. It's been in the back of my mind off and on that I would give it another go.

2) I reconnected with some Ice friends who have done improv and was inspired by a couple things, both personal and professional. One of the goals that I set at the end of last year was to spend some time this year involved in improv.

The professional: Applying principles of improv to science communication is kind of a thing. Since I like improv and do and teach science communication, I wanted to be part of this thing.

The personal: A friend was talking about applying improv principles to real life, mainly in relationships of all sorts. Make the people around you look good, give gifts, listen. I was thinking improv would also help me to practice being present and attentive. When I asked for more details on the class, the description included being okay with failing. And I though god, yes, I need to learn to fail. I mean, I know how to fail, but I need to learn that failing is okay. I need to learn to be okay with it. I need to practice being okay with it.

So, even though I'm going to miss three out of eight sessions, I decided to go ahead with the class. No time like the present.

Here is the series of texts I sent to a friend in the half hour leading up to the class:
(6:31) What if I don't really like the other people in the class? What if it's lame?
(6:31) What if I don't get anything out of it?
(6:49) And I'm nervous!
(6:49) What if I'm just not on or into it?
(6:49) :(
(6:49) Then I won't get anything out of it.
(6:50) And I forgot mints!
(6:52) Found mints in my glove box. :)
(6:56) I'm wearing purple pants.

Big surprise, I survived. But I failed. In a way that doesn't even feel like a good way. I failed at failing! I didn't even fail on the "stage"--I failed to get on the stage. I can't fail if I'm not on the stage. The last game was freeze tag, which you've seen if you've seen just about any improv. Two people play out a simple little scene with big gestures, another player yells freeze, they freeze, the new player taps one of them on the shoulder, takes the same position, and starts a totally different scene. I kept waiting. For the right moment. For the right inspiration. For whatever. In the meantime, all the scenes were going on too long because people weren't calling freeze and jumping in. Rebecca, the organizer, who I did improv with long ago, was mouthing to me from her perch as the only audience member across the room: Freeze. Say freeze. Say freeze. Because if you're not playing, you're not a team player. I wasn't a team player. Rebecca picked up an imaginary brain out of her real head and set it tidily next to said head: Stop thinking.

So, I've got a lot of work to do. Stop thinking. Start playing. Stop judging. Start being. Stop editing. Start creating.

I feel like I failed tonight, even though I'm supposed to be embracing failing. Everyone else got out there, repeatedly, even the first-timers. I did maybe two scenes. With cold feet. Funny thing about improv, there are rules. There are things to keep track of. There are pressures. And the pressures are to be aware, and to listen, and to stop thinking so much. But to tap into that creative space, we have barriers to get past. One of the rules is to avoid asking questions because that leaves us at the surface and not committing. When we ask a question (What are you doing?) we're not creating, we're waiting to see what someone else will come up with. This is considered bad etiquette, partly because it's not interesting for the audience and partly because it puts the burden of decision on your fellow player. But it also robs you of the opportunity to create. In a place where it seems like there should be no rules, or etiquette to follow, we have rules and etiquette to force us to that scary, vulnerable, risky, exposing, and liberating space. We could fail. But fear of failure is what makes us truly fail. I feel more sheepish about my paralysis, about not getting out there tonight, than I would if I did something stupid. This is exactly what we're trying to break through. Not failure, but the fear of failure.

Okay, that's it. Next week, I'll do better.

Posted by beth at April 10, 2015 4:38 AM

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