The first character I remember playing was a beer vendor at Yankees Stadium. I was about five years old and after my parents realized that I would do anything for a laugh, my dad taught me how to do a Bronx accent and we set up this little bit to entertain his friends. Whenever he had people over for a game, he would call his sweet little girl over and kindly ask me to get him a beer. I put my hands on my hips, pursed my lips and screamed back, “GET CHA OWN DAYUMMMM BEEEAAAARRR!” then stormed off. They loved it.
Since then, my life has been a series of wacky characters. As a child, I talked to anything that would stay in place long enough to listen to me (including inanimate objects). My favorite thing in the world was my dress up box – a portal to hundreds of new characters. I loved being silly & fun… and I honestly just wasn’t patient enough to write down scripts, so everything was improvised. Flash ahead a few years, and I’m sitting in my first improv class. The first few years of improv were fun. I studied in NYC, where the improv scene wasn’t booming yet so I never felt like there was a lot of pressure. It was just a fun & relaxed environment… it was all just a hobby. When I got more serious, I took the next logical step and headed to Chicago, where I could get the training that NYC wasn’t able to give me (at the time).
Chicago’s improv journey started out fun. I loved my ensemble and felt really safe with them. I was feeling good, doing well and just playing in the moment. However, a few months into my Chicago journey, I started nailing auditions. I was cast into shows with people who had way more experience than me, respected teachers began investing time in me, and my teammates constantly praised my work. For the first time in my performance career, I felt pressure.
Improv was no longer fun… it was serious. So many people invested in me and I was terrified of letting them down. Every time I stepped off stage, I gave myself hundreds of notes. What could I have done better? Why didn’t my scene have much substance? Did I really just do yet ANOTHER scene where I play someone who yells a lot? I no longer listened to compliments because I thought they were empty. Everyone was just trying to make me feel good. If I think I’m good, then I’ll stop improving… so instead I have to be critical and learn from every performance.
Then I went to a workshop led by Katie Rich. The subject? Finding the fun in improv again. Within the first hour, I had a scene where I was in my head. After it was over, I mentioned that it didn’t feel good about it because I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know what I was doing and felt like I was just going with the flow. Her response? A tough love approach that went more or less like this:
“REALLY?! NO WAY. You didn’t know what was going to happen in an improv scene? In a scene that has never been created before, and will never be created again, you didn’t know what everyone else was thinking or what was going to happen next?! Woah. You should just quit now (dramatic pause to switch tones) GOOD! THAT MEANT YOU WERE IMPROVISING! Don’t ever apologize for not knowing what is going to happen next. Don’t EVER put that pressure on yourself. If you do, you’re preplanning… you’re not improvising. Shit.”
It was one of those moments where I was like… well, shit Annie… DUH.
Why was I putting so much pressure on myself? This was something that I did for fun… I don’t have to do it. No one is holding a gun to my head telling me to improvise. I do it because I love it… because I’ve always loved it. Because it comes naturally. Because when I improvise, I mean really improvise, I feel like the 7 year old version of myself who spoke in a British accent for a week in an attempt to convince her class that Baby Spice is her cousin. It makes me happy and nostalgic.
It’s absolutely ridiculous to put as much pressure as I put on myself to succeed in an art form that is nurtured by failure. Improv is about having fun, being silly and just letting go. Being in the moment. Taking a jump without any fucking idea what’s next.
Anyone who has heard of improv, or read Tina Fey’s autobiography, knows the concept of “yes, and…” Basically, don’t deny your scene partner. When your partner tells you that you’re in space, you don’t tell them that space is a stupid idea and you’re really at Obama’s inauguration. Instead, you may say “yeah, and isn’t it crazy that Obama is having his inauguration on Mars? What an ironic wacko…” Trust is built off of this.
At some point in the five hours we were there, Katie mentioned that you also have to “yes, and…” yourself as well. Not sure what else she said after that because just those few words were enough for my mind to psychoanalyze everything I’ve ever done in life. Yes, and yourself. Yes, and yourself. Don’t deny yourself. Don’t be your own worst critic.
I had a Vietnam style flashback to the first bad day of improv I’ve ever had. I felt shitty… I had an off day and felt like I let down my teachers, teammates and the directors who cast me into the show. I went home and sobbed like I did when I was a 13-year old cheerleader & found out that I didn’t get captain. It was absolutely pathetic. After emerging from my cave, I confided in my favorite teacher, Jay Sukow, who taught me earlier that day. He simply stated, “Why don’t you let your directors tell you when you’re having an off day, instead of yourself?” then sent me a podcast talking about how you have to believe in yourself more than anyone or you’ll never make it.
Yes, and yourself. Yes, and yourself. Don’t deny yourself. Don’t be your own worst critic. Let your director tell you that you’re having an off day. It clicked. It’s natural to let the pressure get to you. It’s hard to have people compliment you when you’re not convinced yourself. Instead of building your confidence, it just puts more weight on your shoulders. When I was my only fan, I only risked letting myself down. Now that other people believe in me, I’m carrying them too.
But at some point, you have to shut the fuck up. Directors are there for a reason – they’re the ones that should be critical, not you. You’ll never be satisfied if you keep trying to be perfect in such an imperfect art. Trust that your mentors are honest enough with you to say when you need to work on something. Trust that they aren’t handing out empty compliments when you do well. After the workshop, I vowed to yes, and myself more. I made a promise to stop being so damn afraid of failure and just go with it. I need to view myself through the eyes of my teammates & learn to believe in myself like they believe in me.
When I signed up for Katie’s workshop, I was told that it would be what I needed to remind myself that I’m doing this to have fun. After about 15 minutes with her, I let go and just had a fucking blast. How effective were her lessons? Well, by the end of the weekend, I wrote ten pages of notes, fifteen new characters, two podcasts & finally set a meeting to discuss a web series that has been in the works for months. On top of that, my friend and I had so much fun together that we’re writing a two (wo)man show. My rehearsals this week were full of moments that old Annie would have deemed a failure… and I didn’t care. Instead, I found really fun characters to write about that I would have never met if I worried about getting everything ‘right’. I finally got out of my head and just played. This workshop was one of those learning moments that will stick with me forever. I think it was worth my fifty bucks.
Long story short: My name is Annie and I’m a former perfectionist. This weekend I learned that life is too fucking short to be anything but fun.