I’m a comedian and an improviser by training, but I am struggling to laugh right now. I don’t have a Bright Side filter for a pandemic. I wake up thinking “Everything is terrible.” I’ve become a rotten pessimist, collecting evidence for that life view with every news cycle. People I know have died. The economy will be gutted and people’s lives are impacted beyond measure. The work I’ve worked 20 years to cultivate has evaporated overnight. Every booking on my calendar is canceled. Some days I am able to eek out some uplift for my community, but most days I use my improv powers to parody and poke holes in the forced-smile messages of hope (mine included) against the backdrop of our own existential fear.
On stage, my improv training makes me unflappable. No matter what happens, I can remain confident while I zag and pivot. This is different. I can’t rely on my improviser’s muscle memory to swing through this unprecedented disruption with a smile on my face. Not when my body shuts down every day at 3pm so I can go full-fetal. Not when I have to consume anything Pixar in 20-minute increments because I am sobbing so hard. I’m not unflappable; I’m extremely flapped.
Fortunately, there’s another side of improv training: the ability to notice and play the scene you’re in. To be authentic. To recognize that what is happening has not happened before and you have no roadmap and that it’s scary. To be present to the fear and to name it and to build upon it, not ignore it. To improvise doesn’t mean you’re smiling like a dope through the awkward, unbearable dance of this crisis; it’s being there, in your body, every inelegant step of the way, stubbed toes and elbows like wrecking balls, moment by moment.
Here are some things that I know from improvisation – or, more accurately, forget that I know and rediscover in my darkest moments.
I am a control freak, a perfectionist. I’m the kind of person who starts reflexively touching his watch when a meeting goes over by a minute. Left to my own predilections, I would be a signature Virgo-Gay-GenX-Midwesterner and try to fix everything because it’s ‘my fault when something is awry.’ The practice of Improvisation has taught me to let go of the moments that I can’t control. Here is my two-step process:
1.) Freak out (just for a second!)
2.) Surrender to the scene I’m in. This little concept has changed my life. I set aside the scene I had premeditated on the sidelines in honor of the scene that’s actually playing out. It requires a moment-by-moment ability to release one’s expectation and be open to what’s really happening. I’ve learned to stop mourning the death of what I’d expected to happen (or the bright idea I’d had) and to be present.
The idea of Surrendering isn’t the same as ‘giving up.’ It’s giving up control. Giving up that you’re stupid for not knowing the right thing to do/say in this moment. It takes courage to surrender.
How To Do It: Practice radical acceptance of the moment, especially when you find yourself thinking ‘this isn’t how this is supposed to be going.’ Letting go of the expectation for your day, your hour or your year can free you up to react and to notice opportunities.
Surround yourself with people you can trust
I’ve been lucky to work with some of the most talented improvisers in the world. If I had to cast a supergroup from all of these collaborators, I’d choose the ones who created a sense of trust. The ones who support each other’s bold or hairbrained initiations on stage and in life. The ones who listen.
In this rough time, make sure you have a group of people you can trust. These are the people who are wise, positive and aware. Create your ensemble from the people who can support you in your lowest moments and find ways to connect with them frequently. Be their trusted person, too. All of us have friends and colleagues who desperately need support right now; don’t abandon them (more on that in my next point.) However, if you are depleting yourself in support of everybody else you are missing out on the structures that support you. That won’t be good for anybody. It’s OK to make time to connect with the people you can depend on for encouragement when you are feeling flattened.
How To Do It: Be mindful about how you are spending your connected time right now. Make requests and schedule time with the people who nourish you. When you do, be open to their encouragement and tough love. The people you trust can’t contribute unless you trust them.
Have other people’s backs
One of my favorite bits when I do a solo improv show is to snag an audience member to help me on stage. I’ve learned over time that this only works if I let them know that I’ve got their back, I’ll support them and make them look good no matter what they do. When we know somebody has our back, we are able to take risks that we’d never take otherwise. When I focus on supporting somebody else, I become less nervous in focusing on myself or getting into my head. I succeed because I must succeed for another person.
Especially on the days when you are feeling flattened by all the change going on, step outside of your perspective by checking in with somebody else. The people who are the least likely to reach out to you are sometimes the ones most in need of a connection.
How to Do It: Make this easy on yourself: Lower the bar! It’s OK to text. To let somebody know you are thinking of them. When I let my perfectionism take over or try to think of the perfect message, I delay reaching out. Improvisers know that the moment to act is the moment of need. It’s now. It’s not what you say it’s that you say something.
Get an audience to hold you accountable
A couple weeks ago I was asked to perform on a virtual Storytelling show over Zoom. I realized how much I depend on an audience to keep from becoming a formless blob. Once the event started, I became a better version of myself: present, funny, hair combed, pants with a zipper. It’s a strange quirk of human nature (or at least my human nature) that we can turn it on for others but struggle when we are in a room alone getting through a tedious To Do list. All I know is that, after the storytelling show, I felt great. Inspired. Restored.
I am learning to create an audience as often as possible. When others are holding me accountable or expecting a certain level of energy and enthusiasm, I deliver. Because I must. When I coach solo performers or executives preparing a presentation or TedTalkers pulling their message together, I tell them to practice in front of other people. You stand up straighter, speak louder and push past the “I’m lost!” moments when others are watching. You can’t bail on yourself. Your inner leader must emerge.
How I Do It: I’ve started hosting ‘Get sh*t done Days’ with friends from across the country. We check in over Zoom at the top of every hour to declare goals (creative and otherwise) and come clean about where we’ve gotten off track. We ask for and provide encouragement. We fight to stay on track as a group. Not only do I get an audience that requires me to be at my best, I get to be that audience for others.
Be Careful: Don’t overdo it. Your body and your soul also needs some formless blob time. If all of your time is in front of an audience you risk creating a ‘fake self’ and losing an authentic connection with what you’re feeling, thinking and becoming.
In this pandemic, I can’t say that I’m #thriving. I can say I’m learning more from the lessons I’ve learned from improvisation. What’s needed now isn’t adapting ‘away from’ the churn; it’s adapting ‘into and through.’ It’s turning the boat into the storm, opening your arms wide and screaming ‘let’s do this!’
About the Author: Andy Eninger is a writer, improviser and coach who helps organizations unlock behavioral patterns to uncover great ideas. He is the former head of the Writing Program at the famed Second City comedy theater and has designed learning programs for hundreds of corporations.