The Improv Life: It All Comes Down to Communication and Connection
I took a series of personality test years ago courtesy of my university’s career center. Taking personality tests became a norm for me while at Cal.
The Myers Briggs was used extensively by a professor of mine to help students gain insights into their personalities, flaws, and opportunities for growth. I took his class 3 times.
This other test I took was specifically to assess which careers I would be best fit for.
Honestly, I looked at the results and didn’t process them. I had Brazil on my mind as I was leaving for a life changing study abroad experience.
But I knew better than to just throw them away. I put the test results in a folder and decided I’d look at it later.
Later became years later. I was thinking about my life path, and if I had made the right choices. I dug up the folder, pulled out the test, and poured over the findings.
What they said was this: I was best equipped to work in something with communication and connection which could involve writing, leadership, and other stuff in those areas.
When I read it, I was a writing tutor, leading an improv group, part of others, doing weekly shows in Orange County and LA, writing blogs and poems.
Honestly, it was like looking at a photograph of myself wedged in the corner of a mirror with the photograph looking back at me: this was who I was then, who I am now, and probably who I’ll always be.
Ironically, it was that same Brazil trip where I decided that no matter what I did with my life, I was going to live as a writer. I wanted to live as a writer – because looking back – writing (and all its forms, which include improv and performing) was a way of communicating and connecting with people – a 2-in-1 activity that would express my heart and fulfill my soul, giving my life a purpose that would transcend any job, place, or relationship.
That’s a hell of a promise I made to myself, and looking at these test results all these years later only confirmed that I made the right choice.
My biggest concern as a performer (even since my first show) has been getting over.
“Getting over” is a term pro wrestlers use to describe the experience of being embraced by the audience and becoming a fan favorite.
If you’re a wrestler, getting over is the end-all and be-all. You want to get over, and do whatever you must to stay over.
I didn’t come from a proper theater background. I grew up in a working class immigrant neighborhood in Santa Ana, CA, which is practically Mexico.
The closet theater to me was a movie theater. I grew up with no arts except for the movies I saw on HBO, the music I heard on the radio, the comic books I collected, and the tons of pro wrestling and sitcoms I watched on every television channel possible.
Pro wrestling felt different than all the other art forms. It seemed real to me (and for the longest time I thought it was) because of how much the wrestlers hated each other in ring, which was proven through the brutality of their matches.
In addition, I was sucked in by pro wrestling’s long running angles and narrative arcs anchored by strong characters I could emotionally invest in.
Wrestling gave you a reason to keep tuning in every week, to cheer the good guy, boo the bad guy, and hope justice would prevail.
The first live performance I ever went to (if you don’t count Mass) was a live WWF show at the Long Beach Convention Center in the 1993. It impacted me. It made me a life long fan and gave me a way to understand life. Shit, I did amateur wrestling my freshman year of high school because I loved wrestling so much!
Okay, what I’m trying to say is this: pro wrestling was a performance art I could understand; therefore, I could draw from it and use it to shape and inspire my own artistic journey.
So as a reminder: I love pro wrestling and have no proper theater background because I grew up in the hood.
Okay, next part. Because I felt this performer in me waiting to get out and I had no theater or role models to help me out, I channeled all this energy into wrestling.
I became a mega fan and started doing impressions of all my favorite wrestlers. I could do Stone Cold, Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Ric Flair, Paul Bearer, Vader, and more. I annoyed the hell out of my family for a few years there.
Finally, I got some improv training. And for a year, a dedicated few of us practiced every week with the hopes of one day doing a show. Then, a date was booked, and we were mere moments away from becoming comedy legends.
But wait! All this improv training did nothing to equip me mentally to perform for a live audience. Don’t get me wrong. I knew about yes-and, never deny, and don’t ask questions, but I didn’t know anything about the mental game for performing unscripted comedy theater. Who was going to help me with that?
Well, I think you know the answer: pro wrestling.
My first show is here. I’m nervous as hell. What am I going to do once we’re out there, live on stage with no script and nothing but our training and our wits to get out alive, with all eyes on us.
I needed some confidence, and fast.
But in lieu of actual confidence developed over a long time of performing show after show, building on a string of repeated failures that lead to real and measurable growth, I needed fake confidence, and lots of it.
Unfortunately, our improv training did not address the mental aspect of performing in front of a live audience.
So I looked to pro wrestling for guidance and inspiration. I literally put together a “Show Outfit,” a dedicated stage garb exclusively for performing improv comedy in front of a live audience.
My hero was Bret “The Hitman” Hart, so I leaned towards pink and black for my stage attire.
I would always shower and shave, and have a moment alone before every show to check in with myself and pump myself up with hypewords and positive psychology. In my mind, I knew I wanted to get over, and I was going to use every trick available to do that.
Did I get over? At the time, I felt like I did, but I was pretty delusional back then. Honestly, before I was going to get over with the fans, I was going to have to get over with myself.
Basically, if I was going to expect an audience to get behind me, I was going to have to present a performer who had genuine confidence. But how do you get that?
But how do you get over? Or rather, how do you build genuine confidence that gets an audience to emotionally invest in you and wants to see you succeed?
It’s pretty simple: training, shows, patience, humility, and the belief you deserve to be on stage
Training – there are no shortcuts to knowledge, especially the technical know how you’re going to need to go on stage and know what you’re doing, along with the personal breakthroughs that come with consistent practice.
Shows – Look, you got to test yourself in front of an audience. There is no substitute for performing in front of fans who are watching you with eyes wide open and giving you energy you have to acknowledge and respond to in the moment.
Patience and Humility – your growth will take time, so you can’t lose hope. And once it comes, you can’t let it give you a big head and make you feel like you know all there is to know about improv.
Belief you deserve to be on stage – okay, this one goes back to wrestling. Dusty Rhodes, the American Dream and wrestling legend, once said, “That if you don’t want to be number one in this business, you got to do something else.”
How I interpret it is that if you don’t want to be on stage, if that’s not of the upmost importance to you, you’re probably not going to get a lot of stage time, so what’s the point.
I understand that this position might alienate people, but I’m a performer, and that need to perform has driven so much of my growth as an artist. You don’t need this drive to do improv, but it is part of my drive, and I encourage you to reflect on how important performing is to your improv journey. Performing is essential for me, and that’s why I think it’s important to get over. How are you going to get over if you’re not doing a show?
So what does getting over mean to me now?
You know, the deeper I’ve gone into this art form, the more parallels I see with pro wrestling.
In pro wrestling, a proven way to get over is by having a veteran talent put you over, meaning they lose to you in a competitive match.
Beating an established star gives you the rub and you can startup getting some heat for a push, a concerted and intentional effort to build your brand and make you a superstar.
And you see it all the time too. The veterans help the next crop of stars by putting them over.
And I feel – and I have always felt – thar’s how it should be in improv. The veterans help put over the next generation by doing shows with them, training with them, sharing their knowledge, and doing whatever they can to build the next generation.
Yes, you should still focus on getting yourself over as in meaning never stop growing, taking risks, and challenging yourself as a performer. BUT also put over others wherever you can and however you can.
We serve the art as much as we serve as ourselves, and we owe it to the art – to its perpetuation, growth, and evolution – to share what we know with those who want to learn.
So, last question: am I over? Yes and no. I’ll always be over as long as I keep working hard to stay over; to stay committed to my craft by pushing myself to never stop learning and growing, and helping out whoever I can along the way.
May you get over and help put others over whenever you can.