Tag Archives: improvisation

Why Acting Classes Are So Hard for Grownups

acting class

acting classI’ve often wondered how many of us out there have fantasized that in another life, we’d all be professional actors.

I know I have. My mother was an actress when she was young, and I was one of those classic theatre geeks in high school, playing everything from Helen Keller to Elizabeth Bennett.

For whatever reason, once I went to college I became far too serious for acting (or so I thought), and abandoned it in favor of my studies.

For a long time, I was plagued by that dreadful “What if?’ that we all apply with increasing frequency to the roads not taken once we hit middle age. Now that I’ve returned to taking acting classes in mid-life, however, I’ve come to realize that I was never good enough to be an actress. And the reason I’m not good enough is that I’m way too protected emotionally to take the kinds of risks required to be a truly good actor.

I know this with 100% certainty because I spend three hours every Friday evening taking an improvisation class with a bunch of other adults. Our teacher is steeped in the Meisner tradition, which means that we begin every class doing Meisner’s classic warm-up, the Repetition Game.

For the uninitiated, the Repetition Game amounts to standing opposite someone else for what feels like an excruciating period of time (but is probably only five minutes) and “calling” the other person’s emotional state, in the moment. The other person repeats exactly what you said until something shifts emotionally in one of the two players and then that gets called out, repeated, and so on.

So it might start like this:

“You’re happy.”

“I’m happy.”

“You’re happy.”

“I’m happy.”

Until eventually that gives way to something like:

“You’re defensive.”

“I’m defensive.”

“You’re defensive.”

“I’m defensive.”

And so on…

Sound easy? It ain’t. Meisner apparently wanted “to eliminate all intellectuality from the actor’s instrument and to make him a spontaneous responder to where he is, what is happening to him, what is being done to him.”

Wow. I don’t even know if “intellectuality” is a word, but Dear God, I cling to it for all it’s worth. It is SO hard to be truly “in the moment.” And that’s coming from someone who is an evangelist for mindfulness.

I know I’m not the only person who runs like hell from the nakedness of their emotions as a grown-up. I was comforted to read an account of the Meisner technique by a young, University of Chicago adjunct business school professor named Jean Paul Rollert. Rollert sat in on four acting classes in an effort to unpack the concept of “empathy.”

In addition to noting (correctly) that “acting classes tend to attract the same assortment of individuals who often congregate in adult education programs: the curious, the bored, the lonely, and the strange…,” he also goes on to observe that “Meisnering” is the equivalent of being “whipsawed, smacked, dunked, tripped, and kicked down a flight of stairs—all in the course of a scene.”

It is, in a word, brutal.

I’ve been doing this technique for close to a year now. And while I’ve had glimmers of success with the technique (though my teacher would shoot me for applying such normative judgments to the process), I find it incredibly hard to access my emotions on demand. My teacher tells me that even my body language betrays this truth about myself. Apparently, I tilt my chest backwards from my hips and push my head forward during the exercise, as if I am literally trying to run away from all feeling and lead with my brain.

I did have one breakthrough moment a month or so ago. I was doing the Repetition Game with a guy in my class who normally laughs a lot as a defense mechanism. All of a sudden, his own underlying sadness came through. And then mine did. And for just that one moment, the whole world seemed utterly and unbearably painful. Because it was.

It was – in equal measure – both an exhilarating and a terrifying sensation.

But after a minute or two, it was gone. We both retreated to safer pastures – he to his laughter and me to my brain.

I really want to challenge myself to feel more during these classes. It feels like the right way to live my life, in my ongoing quest for authenticity and all that good stuff.

But Damn, is it hard.

I wonder what Helen Keller would do.

Image: Miki_peleg_rothstein_in_Our_Class_2 via Wikimedia Commons


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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Try An Improv Class



On occasional Wednesdays I offer tips for adulthood.

I did a lot of acting when I was a child. Early family productions of the Nativity story  featured me, as Mary, screaming “The Baby is Coming! The Baby is Coming!” as my brother dropped a Baby Tenderlove™ doll onto my lap from the top of the staircase. This gave way to star turns in plays such as The Miracle Worker in Junior High (Helen Keller) and Pride and Prejudice in High School (Elizabeth Bennett).But somewhere along the way, I stopped acting and got serious about the business of life. Big mistake.

Fast forward 35 years and I am rediscovering my thespian roots. Prompted in part by losing my job – but also responding to a deeper desire to get in touch with my creative self – I signed myself up for an improv acting course last autumn. Much to my delight, it’s had all sorts of benefits that go way beyond getting me back on the stage.

Here are five reasons taking an improv class is good for you:

It loosens you up.

When contemplating an acting class, I deliberately selected improv because I knew that for someone as organized as myself, it was important to be in a performance space that was as freeing as possible. A script always threatens the possibility that you’ll focus so much on learning the lines that you’ll forget what the scene is actually about. Whereas in improv, it all comes from within and whatever emotions you bring in that moment. Better still, you’re always under time pressure, so trying to get something perfect goes right out the window. Don’t think. Just do. Which is, oh!, so therapeutic.

It makes you more tolerant.

One of the basic principles of improvisation is “Yes, and.” This basically means that whatever the other actor throws your way, you embrace it and go with it. So if someone comes in and says, “You’re a Jerk!,” You can’t say “No, I’m not.” You have to respond with something – anything – that accepts whatever they’re offering and moves the story forward. (i.e., “Yes I am a Jerk but that’s because you double-crossed my mother.” And now we’re off and running – we have a plot.)

But the value of “Yes, and” goes way beyond the theatrical. You can also use it in real world conversations, much like the “Is there Anything Else?” game my husband and I sometimes play to resolve conflicts. LINK The idea is to just say “yes” instead of instinctively saying “No.” By opening up conversations, rather than shutting them down, you learn to be more tolerant and less critical.

Imagine if the next time your spouse came in and said “This again for dinner?” instead of replying with an expletive or hitting him/her over the head with your frying pan you responded, “Yes, and I can’t wait to eat it with you!” Try it!  

It improves your public speaking skills

The “Yes, and” principle noted above isn’t just useful for fostering greater tolerance and reducing conflict. It’s also a really useful tool for public speaking. A lot of people love giving talks, but hate the Q and A period at the end precisely because they have no control over what happens there. Unless you know the questions in advance, people can ask anything. And a lot of people freak out if they don’t know what’s coming their way. Improv helps with this. The whole principle of “Yes And” enables you to accept whatever the offer is – even if it’s “I don’t really understand your talk” and go with it. You can respond “That’s a really interesting point. What specifically wasn’t unclear?”, which is just another version of “Yes, and.”

It fosters teamwork

The other thing that improv does is to force you to work in teams. While there are some improv games that only entail one person, most involve at least two or more. When I was a child, I hated being put into groups because while I knew I would work really hard on the project, I could never guarantee that others in my group would do the same. (One of my best friends said the exact opposite: she always worried that she would pull the group down. (I’m sure there’s a personality test to sort for this attitude.)

But now that I’m grown up, I find that I actually welcome group work, especially if it’s on something creative. There’s a certain relief that comes from realizing that everything doesn’t sit entirely on your shoulders. And what you create is almost invariably more interesting than what you might have done on your own. Improv is a really good way to get people to appreciate the value of other people’s skill sets. You also learn how to listen to each other more carefully, which is only ever a good thing.

You’ll Laugh

Finally, improv is really fun. And that’s because people come up with the strangest things to say that will throw you completely off your game. And those gems will crack you up. You’ll also laugh at yourself.

Image: Lige d’Improvisation Montréalease 20101107-04 via Wikimedia Commons