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Posts tagged improv anxiety

In this interconnected age it’s easy to believe anyone can find you. Like that creep from summer camp who keeps sending you friend requests.

But products are different. Just because you have a great product doesn’t mean people know to look for it. And in the case of improv, they may not even know what your product is.

With few exceptions, improvisation just doesn’t attract many outsiders (i.e. new customers). When the host says “Clap if you’ve never seen improv!” and someone claps, you can feel the amazement ripple through the space.

People aren’t coming out in droves to see improv. So what are they coming out for? Lots of things, it turns it out. Here are some tried-and-true ways to create a show that packs the house.

Have a party!

People like to party. Party Hard, Hard Party even sounds like an invitation. If you mention beer in the name, like BeerProv, they’ll get what the show is about. BeerProv is so successful, they’ve expanded beyond Canada to the U.S.

Non-improviser: Hey, you wanna go to this show? It’s a comedy show with beer.

Steal an existing following.

People like TV shows and board games and comic books. Shows like Holodeck Follies, Improv Against Humanity, and Riverdale: Improvised come with a built-in following. Facebook groups, online forums, festivals and conventions can help spread the word. Just don’t go there to spam them; interact with other fans. If they’ve been to your show and liked it, nothing beats word of mouth advertising.

Non-improviser: Hey, you know that TV show we like? You wanna go see a comedy show based on that? I hope they have beer.

Steal an existing style.

The Improvised Shakespeare Company made improv accessible to fans of the Bard, and vice versa. Anthony Atamnuik and Neil Casey’s Two-Man Movie uses film techniques to tell an improvised story. And Edmonton’s Die-Nasty is an improvised soap opera with recurring characters and a continuing storyline. (They even do a 50-hour soap-a-thon where performers go without sleep. Props.)

Show off your other talents.

Build a show around your other skills, like the singing sensations of Mansical and Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. There are improv shows based around puppetry, poetry, and true stories, to name a few.

Have a cause.

Laugh in the Face of Fear is a show where anxious people can enjoy a night of anxiety-themed comedy in a safe environment. They get a chance to perform, if they choose, and profits go to mental health charities. You could build a show to support your own favourite cause, charity, or non-profit.

Make it a competition.

Theatresports, Catch23 and Rap Battles use elimination as a hook to build an audience and keep ’em coming back. The audience tends to skew towards improvisers, but long-term shows like Cage Match and The World’s Biggest Improv Tournament round up family and friends to rig the votes…uh, cheer on the victors.

Have a POV.

People love to flout taboos, and Filthy: The No-Rules Improv Cabaret pushes boundaries to the limit. Other improv shows with attitude centre around feminism, politics, or specific cultures.

Make the audience the star.

Try involving your audience vs just entertaining them. Blast From The Past, Blind Date, Matt& and Neil +1 use audience members as an integral part of the show.

Non-improviser: You wanna go to a show where it’s about us? Hell yeah, I love us. Beer!

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You can probably think of more categories to explore. Whatever your premise, put in the time behind the scenes and make your show something the press could write about.

Two more thoughts:

Find a new space.

You may need to go beyond your community to get noticed. Think outside the theatre for ways to expose new people to your message; people who wouldn’t normally set foot in a theatre.

Look for potential partners or or sponsors. Let’s say you have a coffee-themed show. You could promote a local cafe on posters and during the show, serve their product, put up signage in their establishment, or even perform in their space.

When advertisers talk about “white space,” it means identifying potential gaps in existing markets. You can define a new white space in improv by taking some of the steps above.

A word about form.

Formats are fun, no question. You might get excited about doing a Deconstruction or Harold, but the truth is most audiences don’t care. (And unless they’re improvisers themselves, won’t have a clue what that means.) The form you do is pretty much window dressing to them. All anyone really cares at the end of the night is, did they enjoy it?

Don’t have a form, have a “thing.” If you don’t have a thing, you probably won’t have a following. When you have a thing you’ll not only find your audience, over time they’ll find you.

The audience is listening • Photo © Simon McCamus

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For ten years, I watched helplessly as Cameron spiralled downward into anxiety, agoraphobia, and depression. Just the thought of doing stuff outside his comfort zone made him physically ill – and everything was outside his comfort zone.

So how did he go from sick and scared to an improv ninja who now teaches others how to overcome anxiety?

Find out, in this funny and inspiring series of posts he wrote for his blog. If you’ve ever thought being anxious was a life sentence, this is for you:

How I Got Over My Anxiety Part 1: Deciding To Change

How I Got Over My Anxiety Part 2: Seeing A Therapist

How I Got Over My Anxiety Party 3: Meditation

How I Got Over My Anxiety Part 4: Self-Help

How I Got Over My Anxiety Part 5: Improv!

How I Got Over My Anxiety Part 6: Facing Fear

How I Got Over My Anxiety Part 7: Accepting Myself As I Am Right Now

John Hodgman spoke recently about how Stephen Colbert overcame embarrassment by doing embarrassing things in public, until it no longer bothered him.

This makes perfect sense.

Whether he’s bobsledding in skintight Spandex, or telling George Bush to his face what a douche he is, Colbert’s commitment to character is unflinching.

But for some people, fear of embarrassment can be debilitating.

Katagelophobia, Anyone?

Katagelophobia is the fear of embarrassment, ridicule, or (ironically for comedians) of being laughed at.

I’ve blogged before about Cameron’s anxiety-ridden past. For years he suffered from daily panic attacks, cold sweats, vomiting, eczema, coughing, diarrhea…you name it. Finally in desperation, we went to a shrink.

The therapist, it turned out, had problems of his own. But he said two things that completely changed Cameron’s life – and mine, too.

First, he suggested Cameron take up improv. And second, he said that most anxiety comes from a fear of embarrassment.

We left the therapist after only a few sessions, but Cameron enrolled at Second City. And he did something else that helped him, in improv and in life: he started doing “embarrassing” things, like purposely tripping and stumbling in front of strangers.

At first he would blush and get cold sweats. But he kept on doing it, day after day, until he actually looked for excuses to do silly things in public.

Today he’s so happy, calm and confident that people who didn’t know the “old” Cameron are flabbergasted to learn he wasn’t born fearless.

Disapproval Starts With You

Fear of embarrassment often comes from wanting approval. (“I hope I don’t fuck up on stage tonight. I’ll never be able to show my face again!”)

I’ve seen wanting approval cripple a lot of funny people, especially at festivals, where they put extra pressure on themselves to be brilliant.

Worrying about what your audience thinks is a surefire way to get in your head. When you worry, you judge, and it’s a fast trip to Suckville from there.

Richard Burton used to stand backstage before performances and whisper, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” to the audience. If you can let go on needing approval, you’ll have a much better show. And a helluva lot more fun.

Some people say anxiety before a performance is good, even necessary. I say bullshit. I’ve done plenty of crappy shows where I was nervous beforehand, and just as many good ones where I wasn’t.

It’s natural for some adrenaline to kick in before going on stage, but if having your girlfriend in the audience makes you jittery, click here for some exercises that can help.

Don’t Take Yourself So Seriously

One of my favourite sketches of all time is the Ministry of Silly Walks. It’s so quintessentially British. And yet as John Cleese said, “The aim of any good English gentleman is to get safely to his grave without ever having been embarrassed.”

To err is human. And life’s too short to worry what other people think. Chances are, they’re busy worrying what you think of them.

So if anxiety about making the wrong move, or even just looking stupid in public is holding you back, try looking stupid on purpose. It works.

To hear Hodgman talk about Colbert, click here.

Photo © Laura Dickinson Turner / Second City

Photo © Laura Dickinson Turner / Second City

Colbert kissing David Razowsky while Steve Carell watches at Second City’s 50th anniversary.