I got into improv for the wrong reason: to be liked. I was looking for everyone to validate me, especially the audience.
“Oh, what a noble thing I am doing,” I thought, “making people laugh.” I was lying to myself. I desperately needed their love, and I would bend and twist myself into any shape they wanted as long as they would accept me. I wish I could say I lost my voice, but the truth is I never had one to lose.
Since I was performing to justify my existence, I never let audiences see the real me. Why would I show them that? If I did, they would be repulsed and reject me.
So for years, I hid on stage. I hid behind characters who made safe choices, who supported other players but didn’t make an initiation. I’ve seen tons of improvisers in the same spot. They hide by being witty, by shying away from anger on stage, by being a caricature instead of saying something truthful about themselves through their character.
This is the worst kind of juggling act — trying to express yourself and trying to please people at the same time. And you know what? It doesn’t work, not even a little.
Eventually, I did start to find my voice. When I did my one-man show, “I’m 27, I Still Live At Home and Sell Office Supplies,” I took some big risks in showing my real self – how depressed I was, my anger at my mom, my self-loathing.
If you truly want to be an artist in any field, you have to take risks, which means making people uncomfortable, and the person who’s going to feel the most uncomfortable is you.
Unfortunately, though, you can’t learn the lesson of taking risks just once. It’s a lesson you have to keep relearning over and over again, and many times, I’ve gone back to hiding on stage.
A couple of weeks ago I got married to the most beautiful and kind person, Lauren. Our wedding was on a perfect Sunday fall evening at the super elegant Chicago History Museum. At the reception, both Lauren and I gave some impromptu speeches to our guests who came to celebrate this special day with us. When I took the mic out of Lauren’s hands, I felt a little performance high, which I sometimes get, and I spoke from my heart. I started out thanking people in my wedding party and then I acknowledged the three therapists in the room who had all helped me get to this place in my life where I could actually get in married. I mentioned the age difference between Lauren and I, a source of shame for me since I am 48 and she is 34. And finally, I also acknowledged my friends from the numerous 12-step programs that I’m affiliated with.
In that three or so minutes, my voice was stronger and clearer than it has ever been, and I was no longer hiding. This was me, take it or leave it. Some people appreciated what I said, others not so much. I was uncomfortable and I had pissed some people off, but I realize that for me, it was the right thing to do, and it was important for me to show who I really am.
After almost 25 years in improv, I finally understand that I had it all backwards. Being truthful and revealing things about yourself is the best way to connect with your audience.
To really make an impact on the audience, you have to risk not being liked. You have to say things that may be unpopular or play characters whose point of view is rough or not politically correct.
When your voice get stronger and clearer you are going to piss some people off, which is a good sign that you are on the right path.
Sure, being yourself and being really honest isn’t easy, but if you don’t do it, you’ll be killing yourself and your art at the same time. I’m going to keep trying.