Sometimes people don't believe me when I tell them I'm shy. For me, shyness is one of those personality traits that comes and goes. It can be crippling when it rears it's ugly head, so I've spent the last twenty some-odd years of my life learning to cram it down into the deep dungeons of my psyche. As a kid, I could barely open my mouth in a classroom full peers. When I did, they ate me alive. I've never had a sharp tongue, and was born with an imagination that lent itself to weirdness and extreme gullibility. Basically, I was a bully's wet dream.
While the other kids ran amok, you'd find me tucked away in the back corner of the playground with my head phones on, spacing out to my Dad's latest Enigma album, or doodling in a sketchbook. I kept to myself, and never, ever opened my mouth. That is, until the bus dropped me off. As soon as my feet hit the ground I went wild, transforming into a boisterous exhibitionist, a death-defying dare devil, a social butterfly.
Lucky for me, that girl, the Mary Helen known to my family and friends outside of school, later escaped the hell-hole of conventional education. She survived, and shy Mary was banished to the back room of my brain. I keep her under control by continually doing things that are scary, embarrassing, or difficult. Every time I do, she shows up, but I remind her who's boss.
My latest endeavor into self-exploitation was an eight week course in improv. The New Movement Theater in downtown Austin offers a variety of classes for budding comics and actors, including classes on sketch writing, improv, and stand-up. My little sister, Caitlin, and I signed up for a level one improv class together. I figured it would help me loosen up during cooking demos and live videos, not to mention provide me with a lot more insight into comedy writing and storytelling. Plus, Caity is hilarious, and has been dying to get into some aspect of comedy. How could I say no?
To be totally honest though, those aren't the only reasons I did it. Theater in general has always been a secret aspiration of mine. When I was a kid, I remember telling my Dad that I thought I'd make a great actor. When he asked why, I explained that whenever I read a book, or watched a movie I liked to practice feeling the way the character did. When Fievel's heart ached from missing his Russian mouse family mine throbbed along with him. Naturally, I had the makings for a brilliant method actor. My father must have remained unconvinced, as no acting lessons or trips to Hollywood took place after my confession.
I tried a few times during my school years to become involved with theater. I remember trying out for a high school musical production. While I thought I'd done quite well on the musical end, my acting audition was nothing short of catastrophic. We were put through a series of frustrating improv exercises involving manipulation, a skill that I was pretty much born without. I still maintain that I would have gotten a part had I been allowed to read some lines. Instead, I ended up kicking one of the "stars" off of her chair with my boot.
Surely, adult improv class would go better.
After the first session of improv I spent the week obsessing over every word I had said, terrified that I had failed somehow. Had I offended anyone? Was I boring? It's amazing how well you can torture yourself over something that is meant to be fun. Of course, it's nerve wracking to put yourself out there like that, to just let any old thing flop out of your mouth, but I was surprised by how much the experience unhinged me.
I couldn't shake the feelings of loss and panic. My first improv session was a lot like a night of heavy drinking. It went by in a blur, and no matter how I tried, I just couldn't put together the details afterward. I was left with a spattering of disjointed memories and a feeling of extreme anxiety. Nuzzling my head against my sister's knee, an imaginary room filled with murder weapons, a man with a plainly forced stutter, red paint peeling off the walls and sticking to my sweaty palms.
I'm not sure how I mustered up the courage to return the second week. It probably had a lot to do with not wanting to let down my sister. Caitlin is the baby of our family, and nurturing her interests is ingrained into my DNA. Despite my concerns about developing PTSD, I found myself at the next session where suddenly, everything had changed. The faces were more familiar, names began burrowing into my memory, and a set of logical rules were applied to the chaos. After our second session, and after every week going forward, I found my brain blissfully blank. No worries, no memories, no fear. It's like someone found my crazy switch and simply flicked it back off again.
What I loved most about improv was the opportunity to make believe. As a child, there was no game I liked better. My sister's and I had names, characters, and complicated back stories for each and every one of our Cabbage Patch Kids. We had games of Barbie that went on for months, lengthy dramas of science fiction, tragedy, and conspiracy. Other times we would just go outside and become someone else. Chances to play in this way are pretty much non-existent as a grown up. Having it back is a great gift.
I rode the wave of improv happiness for several weeks before realizing there would be a live recital at the end. I began losing my shit as the date crawled closer. The fear of panicking, going blank, or just being awful flooded my brain. Shy Mary crawled out from the floorboards and cackled triumphantly. I spent every minute, up until I stepped into the theater that day trying to decide whether or not I would, or even could go through with it.
In the end, I decided to face my fear, and tell Shy Mary where she could stick it. I'm glad I did, because performing was somehow even more fun than improv class had been. I'm not ashamed to admit that I thrive in the presence of positive attention like a flower in sunshine. Not much compares with the rush that comes from singing live, but doing improv came close. Claps, laughs, cheers, it's all the same, and better than chocolate.
By the way, Caitlin was AMAZING during improv. She is hilarious, and shows absolutely no fear on stage. Over the course of the class she developed a few characters that have become favorites both on stage and off. One of those is Cheryl, an oddly accented secretary who I can't quite find the words to describe. Luckily I caught Caitlin mid-Cheryl on Friday afternoon while she was doing her taxes.