performing out of reality

the power of improv to place me in the present

There are only a few activities that will get me out of bed before 10 on a Saturday morning, and they almost exclusively involve culinary consumption. My one exception to this hard-and-fast food rule is the opportunity to ask strangers to call out random words, pantomime simple actions, and speak in bizarre voices. Unfortunately, I am not the host of a children’s educational television show. Rather, my Saturday morning motivator throughout high school was comedic improvisational theatre—or, more simply, improv.

Each Saturday, I dragged myself out of bed and into my 2001 Neon Plymouth with minimal radio and lackluster safety features in order to arrive to my improv troupe’s rehearsal. We practiced in a small public theater downtown. The theater’s heating and air conditioning were essentially nonexistent, the walls held unexplained scratch marks, and multiple groups rented the space so we shared the stage with everything from the set of an avant-garde music video to a sketch comedy group’s twist on Julius Caesar. It was the perfect place. For those three hours every Saturday, we were not in a dingy theater in Arkansas, surrounded by a cardboard cutout of Brutus. Instead, we were fishing by a riverbank in Alaska, working at a struggling taxidermist agency, or trekking through an erupting volcano. For a brief time, we existed solely onstage and in that moment.

Those moments took me physically out of my bed, my neighborhood, and my high school, but, more importantly, they temporarily took me out of my own reality. Instead of worrying about upcoming tests or college applications, I was completely in the present. Wherever the scene took us, whether a coffee shop or a lagoon, I did my utmost to exclusively be there no matter how ridiculous or foreign that place was to my reality. Removing myself from my normal headspace, and whatever accompanying anxieties or worries I might have had, was a tremendous freedom. Breaking from my reality allowed me to breathe, to explore, and, most frequently, make a fool of myself without a concern for the consequences. I relished this blank space as a drawing board to explore a variety of ideas and to learn how to explore my own creativity without any pressure or commitment.

Every year, my troupe would board a plane to travel to the Teen Improv Festival in Chicago, Illinois. Throughout the plane ride, we would argue over what we were most excited about: attending the classes of the festival, performing in our showcase, attending local professional improv shows, or having a workshop with Second City, one of Chicago’s most respected comedy theaters. During our stay, we immersed ourselves, while very much remaining bumbling but hopefully endearing tourists, in the city. We went to the Lincoln Zoo, the Chicago Art Institute, Millennium Park to take obnoxious pictures with the illustrious Bean, and attended nightly improv shows at various theaters across town.

Removing myself from my usual physical location pushed me to expand my creativity. From watching (and hysterically laughing at) an Shakespearean style show from Improv Olympics to observing fellow teenage improv troupes showcasing their unique formats broadened my perspective on style and introduced new ways of performing and playing. By forcing myself out of my normal reality and into a new mode of operation, I was able to expand upon my sense of creative exploration.

Now, my Saturday morning motivator has shifted to Tuesday nights as I take the bus down from Brown’s campus into Providence to attend weekly improv classes at our very own Providence Improvisational Guild. The space also functions as a cultural center and potentially also a church (the building continues to confuse me). It does not matter because for those three hours each Tuesday night, I am somewhere else; I am someone else.

Instead of a college student still attempting to master RIPTA routes, I am a tailor who never feels satisfied with his work, an Olympic swimmer who needs to overcome her intense phobia of drowning, or an elderly chimney sweep in a world that no longer has chimneys. For each scene, I attempt to fully immerse myself in this alternate character, to embrace his or her history, relationships with others, and their motivations. By removing my own reality, I learn more about myself. I learn how I navigate human emotion, interactions with others, and the random and quite often very strange associations my mind makes given free reign.

Using improv to take the time to reach out of my daily headspace, usual locations, and even my own history has provided me the space to explore, to learn about my idiosyncrasies, and to expand from my normal reality into new arenas of creative and personal discovery.