Photo © Pierre Gautreau
Teaching new students the art of improvisation has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. The students are so vulnerable and so terrified, and the courage it takes them to simply show up for class deserves recognition.
It’s easy for any improviser to forget, after all the hours logged in classes and on stages in front of audiences, that they once started out as sweaty-palmed students. Whether you’re brand new to improv or you’ve been performing for years, I want to remind you all of the Squirrel in the Garage: the thing that will awaken you to your imaginative side, or the reason you started improv in the first place.
The Squirrel is your sweet, very easily frightened creative self; the one that may not have come out since you were a child. Open, free, innocent, visceral, uninhibited. It is the beautiful creative soul that many people don’t know they have inside of them! (Yes, I believe we ALL have this.)
The Garage is your mind, and the garage door for most people is slammed shut most of the time. The door makes you feel safe, it protects you from humiliation, ridicule, and primarily, judgement. But we know that squirrels shouldn’t live in garages, they should be free, running up trees, across power lines, out in the world.
I believe in creative endeavours we must let our squirrel out to play, and that the door isn’t actually protecting us, it is only an illusion. When we feel fear, our brain kicks in to analyze our situation and find a way to keep us safe. This is great, but only when you are literally trying to survive, like a lion is chasing you or something. When it comes to be art, “being in your head” will kill you. The more you do improv, the more you become aware of the “being in your head” phenomenon.
Most new students tell me that they want to get out of their head, they want to build confidence and feel more relaxed talking to people. Their Squirrel is dying to get out of the Garage.
Think about when you feel the most at home, where you can really just be yourself. Maybe with friends or family, when you’ve had a drink or two, or are in a really good mood. You say what you want, you may act silly, you may make people around you laugh. This is your squirrel running around outside the garage! What a fun free feeling (and now you know you have a Squirrel).
The number one enemy of this squirrel is judgement, aka the garage door: the antithesis of creativity. It is fear incarnate. But “No judgement” is much easier said than done, especially the judgement of oneself.
Veteran improvisers still have that damn door slam shut and scare that squirrel back into the garage, sometimes for weeks. The difference is it happens much less than it used to. And there are times when the door is left wide open and that squirrel can come out and play, and to me, that is the sweet spot of improvisation.
When my squirrel is out, there is no thinking, it is just being. I slow down and lock in on my partner/ensemble and everything seems to just come to me. The connections, the ideas, the offers, THE TRUTH. It feels like magic, the audience can’t believe that what you just created wasn’t written and rehearsed, and my cheeks are flushed with fun.
The brand new improv student will experience this a few times maybe, in the early weeks of their classes, but the confidence it builds is astounding. It’s a drug and the students are hooked on the freedom: the feeling that it wasn’t any work at all.
How could it be that easy? And how do I make it happen again? How do I entice the squirrel to come out? Well if that isn’t the age-old question, the problem that plagues improvisers of all ages and experiences.
Here is what I try to encourage in the early days of improvisation, and these points are a reminder for those who’ve been at it for years:
There is so much freedom in failure. Many of us are programmed to fear it, and
to strive for perfection. But perfection has no place in art. In comedy the goal is entertaining the audience. If that means playing an improv game terribly but with gusto, then you have succeeded. When we can earnestly put ourselves out there and try to do something whilst failing, we will delight others. When new students try and fail in front of each other, it inspires everyone to stick their neck out. This shared experience creates a bond and trust is born.
Trust to be oneself, and trusting our ensemble. Then the garage door opens. For new
Students, I ask them not to think about being interesting/funny/clever but just to do exercises to the best of their ability. Most of the laughs that come from the early days are because of a moment of truth or failure. When those laughs happen, it’s amazing how much a student learns to trust themselves, and that they don’t have to live up to an expectation of funny: just of true in-the-moment reaction.
Why am I sharing the Squirrel in the Garage with all of you? I know everyone has this beautiful self inside them. If you are finding this timid creature for the first time it can change your life no matter what stage you’re in. Improv isn’t just for people who want to be funny or make a career of performing. It’s for people who say “Fuck* fear, this is my voice!”
*(The word “fuck” does not scare the squirrel.)
If you find yourself in an in-your-head rut, remember those early days of learning and what really drew you to this art form: fun. It’s easy to take a billion classes and to get mucked up with all the things you should be doing, but how is your squirrel going to get out of the garage with all those rules in the way?
There is no perfect improviser, and no right way to do this art form, so go back to what makes you giggle and go from there. As the lovely Susan Messing always says, “If you’re not having fun, then you are the asshole.”
Paloma Nuñez is an actress/improviser/comedian living in Toronto. She has had the joy of performing improv for over 10 years and has performed in many festivals, including NYC, Chicago, the Carolinas, Vancouver and Edmonton. She performs with the Bad Dog Theatre Co’s Theatresports, and with the Canadian Comedy Award-nominated Bad Dog Repertory Players. She co-produced Throne of Games, also nominated for a CCA. Catch her in the feature film, Spotlight, coming out in 2015. She likes hugs.