Not that long ago, I was in my mid-twenties and feeling like I couldn’t get a jumpstart on my post-college life. I had expected to be thriving but I was barely surviving. Everything in my personal and professional life was a juggling act, with middling results, and no discernible break in sight. I knew that something had to give if I was going to see myself through this quarter-life crisis. I needed something positive and good. So I did what most former theater kids in Chicago do: I took an improv class.
Improv is practically a rite of passage for freshly minted adults in Chicago and the Second City Training Center, right here in our backyard, is as legendary as it gets. I hoped that a weekly meet-up with laugh-minded individuals would inject something light and fun into my increasingly bummer of a life. At least it couldn’t hurt.
And duh, it’s Second City so of course my expectations were right. Classes were fun and silly and filled with other people looking to put some joy into their lives by way of a stage. Unlike comedic plays, stand-up, or sketch comedy, improv is created on the spot, in real time, in collaboration with your castmates and the audience. There are no time-outs, no breaks, no redos. When improv is done well, it’s a glorious thing to behold: the seamless give-and-take of the improvisers, the witty callbacks, the surprising plot turns and twists, the unpredictability if it will work, and of course, the immediate dopamine hit of landing a joke and getting some laughs.
But you don’t get the reward without risk. In improv class, you have to be ready to be vulnerable, to put yourself out there — immediately. No one will wait for you to think of a great line or to perfectly time your entrance. In fact, the more you overthink, or hold out, or hold back, the more you squander the playful energy shared by castmates that makes the magic of improv happen. And that is far from fun.
So yes, it’s intimidating as hell. Every time you entered a scene or opened your mouth, you were winging it, hoping to be of service to the scene, hoping for a laugh or at least not a crushing silence. After a few classes, the instruction and study gets more defined and deliberate and suddenly everyone who was joking around in the beginning is sputtering out because it’s hard to not try too hard. No one wants to let the scene fall apart, or flub their lines, or mishandle a scene partner’s work. No one wants to look uncool, to be unfunny, to be the odd-person-out. And that fear snuffs out all the creative energy needed for good improv. We could feel it in class, permeating the air like skunkbutt. I started to think of all the other more practical ways I could be spending my tuition money.
Then an instructor bellowed something that changed not only how I performed on stage, but also how I learned to carry myself out in the world.
“Failing is my favorite thing” he’d yell to the cheap seats, with a jubilant smile across his face. “Let’s bomb and see what happens next!”
This instructor, like every instructor I had for over two years of improv study, knew that the good stuff we wanted to get to — the play, the fun, the flow of a good, authentic scene — could only happen if we weren’t afraid of bombing. Easier said than done, right?
Fear of failure is a tricky emotion to overcome, both on stage and in life, though it happens to all of us at some point. And boy, does it sting. Who in their right mind would want to welcome those mortifying moments, when you wish the floor would open up and swallow you whole? Any failure, be it onstage or messing up in a more private way, like at work or in personal relationships, feels far from funny at the time. But failure is important to building, to moving through something difficult. Failing shows you only one way something didn’t work, and gets you closer to the way (or ways) it will.
In class that day, the instructor gave us permission to fail, to be vulnerable enough to take a risk and to see what happens. It felt weird at first, of course — everyone was nervously giggling and testing the waters with easy movements and one-liners. But soon enough, the focus moved away from how to get a laugh to trying something new and different from what’s already been done. There was no competition to out-joke or out-perform but rather we were supporting the big swings, the wacky “what ifs?”, the out-of-left-field ideas. And the room filled with laughter and the play was fun again. Nothing terrible happened when a joke or choice didn’t work out; we just went with it or found a way to reset to keep the energy flowing. No one was left behind; it was a group effort that lent for fun choices and interesting ideas, and those always led to well-earned laughs.
What we learned that day — and every day after, since fear of failure never goes away — was to embrace the “bomb.” Getting comfortable with the discomfort instead of futilely trying to avoid it leads to taking bigger risks, generates more creative ideas, and builds more confidence in your own abilities, voice, and sense of self. It also bonded you to those you worked closely with; it’s easier to feel good about a failure when it’s a group effort. While I don’t think I’d say failing is my favorite thing, I certainly think that it’s an important part of learning and creating. If I’m not afraid of being vulnerable, of taking a big swing and putting myself out there, there’s so much more that can happen. Like my instructor said, “Let’s bomb and see what happens next!”