There's a voice in the back of our head that doubts; that second-guesses; that recommends playing it safe. As we get older the voice gets louder. Some claim it's the voice of reason. They'd say the voice protects us from overreaching; from making a fool of ourselves; or from failing, but what good is that?
In every improv class that I teach, I encourage my students to fail – which may sound counter-intuitive, but hear me out. I teach them to fail, so that they can learn that it doesn't kill them; that they don't lose anyone's respect; and that they can always try again. When I teach any exercise, I push my students to fail boldly. I'd rather they give me 100 percent and miss the mark by a mile than be cautious and close. There aren't many chances in life to dive in headfirst with no repercussions. When you get one, you have to take it.
In fact, for all of its negative connotations, learning what failure feels like is one of the best things I've ever learned. It's absolutely freeing. When you're not afraid to fail, you can try anything. It's like the protagonist in movies who's "not afraid to die". No one knows what they are capable of. People who aren't afraid to fail are similarly bad assed, because they constantly learn what they are truly capable of.
It's important to point out that not being afraid of failing and being comfortable with it are two very different things. I'm in no way suggesting that anyone accept failure. Complacency is akin to giving up in my book. My point is that when we learn not to fear failure, it's so much easier to try again. It loses any power over us. In my life, I've encountered lots of failures. Auditions I didn't land. Jobs that didn't fit. Even my marriage. This isn't to say that some of them didn't hurt - Lord knows they did. But at the end of the day, when the smoke clears and the dust settles, I'm still here. I get to try again and there is no way I'm not going to put my neck on the line again.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Gordon Parks. He said, "I think most people can do a whole awful lot more if they just try. They just don't have the confidence that they can write a novel or they can write poetry or they can take pictures or paint or whatever, and so they don't do it, and they leave the planet dissatisfied with themselves."
The only reward in playing it safe is that you don't fail, but the way I see it, if you don't fail now and again, then you were never really trying.
Why I Stayed: Four Weeks that Changed My Life
Over the years, I've watched friend after friend pack up and leave town - for improvisers Chicago is Mecca, for actors and writers it's New York or L.A. But for lots of reasons, I stayed: family, friends, the chance to do what I love on a daily basis, my son, the improv community, relationships, the list goes on. But last year, over the course of four of the strangest weeks of my life, encompassing unreal highs and lows, I realized the number one reason I've stayed is support.
So here's my story:
On a busy Tuesday, I stopped by the doctor's office because I had a sore throat. I was supposed to go to Baltimore the following weekend with dad, brother and brother-in-law to watch the Tigers and Orioles play a weekend series and I figured, if I was sick, it'd be a good idea to get medicine early so I would be OK on the trip. At the end of the appointment, after the doctor gave me the OK for the road trip, she asked if there was anything else. I mentioned that my side felt weird. She expertly poked at it. I screamed and she sent me to the hospital to have my appendix removed. I would not be going to Baltimore.
(As a side note, Jonathon Ericsson of the Red Wings had the same surgery on the same day and skated in the Stanley Cup finals three days later. My dad will never let me live that down. I stand by my argument that if I was being paid a million dollars, I would have made the trip.)
Pj: 0 Life: 1
The day after the surgery, as I lay in the hospital on heavy painkillers, my phone rang and a San Francisco area code showed up on the screen. I probably should have let it go to voicemail but drugs and boredom prevailed. On the other end was a very nice woman who was very excited to tell me I was one of five finalists in the Edy's Ice Cream "A Taste of Recovery" contest. A few weeks earlier, I had randomly entered the contest online by writing a short essay on how I could use $100,000 as my "Taste of Recovery." I wrote it and then promptly forgot about it. (The actual essay appears below.) The next step was to make a two-minute video based on the same topic.
Pj: 1 Life: 1
Two weeks later, on June 11 at 6PM, it became clear that my marriage was coming to an end.
Pj: 1 Life: 457
Literally one hour later, Edy's called to tell me I had won the grand prize - $100,000 and a year's supply of ice cream.
Pj: 457 Life: 457
On June 20, Edy's came to town and gave me a giant check and we had a little party. The End.
That's a whole lot of life crammed into 25 days, but the thing is, through all of it, the fairy tale highs and the woe-is-me lows, it became abundantly clear to me why I stayed. I stayed because of community.
The essay:I live in Metro Detroit, an area that has been recovering for the past 50 years. With all of the recent automotive hardships, things here have been rough for everyone. I'm entering this contest with the hope of winning a chance to continue my dream. As the co-owner of a new small theater, I'm trying to keep my head above water and the community in good spirits. I can't offer many new jobs, I can't save the economy, but I can offer of taste of recovery. Our goal is to keep Detroit laughing, while we, as a community, figure out what's next. I can't change the world, but I can do my part. Plus I love Ice Cream - which isn't nearly as lofty, but totally true.
6 months ago, I, along with 3 others, opened a improv comedy theater in the Detroit area, our goal is to bring laughter to an area that needs it more than ever. The first few months have been good but not great. This money would allow us the opportunity to get the word out and keep us afloat until we do. Community plays a big role in our vision. Ferndale, the city we're in, has been incredible to us. The people in the area have shown a lot of support. We want to give back as much as we can. We have already had fundraisers here and given away lots of tickets to charities. We even have a monthly unemployment night for those who can't afford regular tickets. Starting a new business in Detroit in these times is hard, the money would give us time, which is essential to recovery.
When we opened, we spent every penny we had. As a result, we opened with much work to do. I'd spend the money to complete our vision and promote our dream. While Improv comedy is a lot of fun to perform or watch, I also believe it goes deeper than that. At its core improvisation is about teamwork, adapting to make do with what you have and believing in yourself. Those three things are critical if you're going to build a community, and more so if you're working to repair one. That's why I believe Detroit needs us and that's why I'd put the money towards the theater, which, in its own way, is offering a taste of recovery to the area and its residents. Thank You.
I believe that there is a war against imagination.
But it wasn't always like that. As a child, imagination is encouraged. It's on the checklists that my son's teachers go over every semester. Imagination is at its strongest when we're children. It's used when there are bad guys at the bottom of the stairs or you have one last chance to win the Super Bowl or when a broom is a guitar or a banana is a gun. But as a child, imagining is as natural as breathing. It's vibrant and unapologetic and weird. Not too long ago during bath time, my 4-year old, Dax, created a musical based on his bath toys – Basketballs vs. Monsters.
But there is a point where some kids are labeled with having "an overactive imagination" – and, somehow, that's a negative thing. Creativity is something to be feared. Then in high school, it's not cool to have an imagination. In college, there's no time for it and in the corporate world there seems to be little patience for it. Or when it is used, it's under the moniker "ideating" which is as far from the idea of imagination as you can get.
As a result, a lot of folks who come to our improv shows will say, "Oh, I could never do that." Well, the truth is, it's something everyone used to be able to do. In fact, I'd say it's something everyone still does. It may not be as bold, but improv is something we all do. Every one of us. I do it on a stage with the hopes of making an audience laugh. You might do it at work, explaining why you were late or at home, explaining to a child what thunder is, or at a bar, when you get caught looking at another girl. We may not call that using our imaginations (some might call it lying, which in some cases is accurate, but irrelevant in this argument), but it is.
On Conan O'Brien's last show, he offered this, "All I ask of you, especially young people...is one thing. Please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism -- it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen."
Cynicism isn't hard to come by. It's easy. Any idiot can complain. Just look at any online forum and you can see scores of negative, cynical comments from anonymous posters that lead nowhere. This is not the time for negativity.
I believe Detroit needs overactive imaginations right now. It needs us to see things that aren't there; that could be there and it needs us to believe in them against all odds. It needs us to believe in other people's crazy ideas too. We live in a city built on crazy ideas – so crazy they just might work – and it's time for another round.
Slightly over a year ago, my business partners and I opened the Go Comedy! Improv Theater in Ferndale. Our goal was to create a home for Metro Detroit's ever-growing community of actors, comedians, and improvisers – somewhere they could perform regularly, and where they could challenge themselves to try new things and improve old ones – all with the hopes of making an audience laugh. Go Comedy! focuses primarily on improv comedy – which inevitably leads to the question: What is improv?
Improv is not stand-up comedy.
That's the biggest misconception that we deal with. So, unfortunately, the first step in explaining what improv is, is explaining what it isn't. Stand-up is one man or woman and a microphone. They have usually spent a lot of time practicing exactly what they are going to say and how they are going to say it. It takes a lot of preparation. An audience at a stand-up comedy club tends to wait for you to prove yourself, and if you can't, well, it won't be fun for anyone.
Improv is a very different art form. It's a group of men and women working together to create comedy, instantly, before an audience. While there is rehearsal, there is virtually no preparation. An improv show doesn't exist until the lights come up. Every show is completely unique and is never replicated. The audience helps create the show by providing suggestions for locations, characters, and more that the cast uses to base their scenes on. Without the help of an audience, there is no show. (If at this point you're thinking, Ew! Interactive theater? I'll stick with TV, I don't want to get picked on. – Fear not. At Go Comedy! we get most of our suggestions on paper before the show even starts.) Since the audience has a hand in creating the show, they are by and large very supportive.
The most recognizable example of improv is the television show Whose Line Is It Anyway?. It was a show hosted by Drew Carey (Clive Anderson in the UK) that featured four comedic actors who were given audience suggestions that they used to create frequently hilarious scenes and songs.
Improv is very much a 'team sport'. If stand-up is golf, improv is baseball. Everyone works together and is ready for anything. When an outfielder goes deep to get a ball, he knows there's a cut-off man waiting for his throw before he ever turns around. When an improv actress walks on stage and says, "Hey Doc, thanks for seeing me." She knows that someone will be portraying a doctor by the time she turns around.
As an improviser, I believe that it's my job to my make my fellow actors look good and I trust that they are going to do the same for me. There are no bad ideas on stage. There are unfunny ideas; there are impolite ideas; but there are no bad ideas. There can't be. There isn't time for an improviser to judge. If you say, 'I'm your mom', then I am; if you say 'I'm a dog or a painting or a radioactive cloud', I am. All ideas are respected and explored and as a result amazing things can happen.
While improv is a lot of fun to perform or watch, I also believe it goes deeper than that. Detroit needs improv right now. At its core, improvisation is about teamwork, acceptance, adapting to make do with what you have and believing in yourself. Those things are critical if you're going to build a community, and more so if you're working to repair one.
Metro Detroit is at the point where there are no bad ideas. There are unpopular ones; there are radical ones; but there are no bad ideas. There can't be. There isn't anything gained by judging them without really taking a look at them. And if you look at those core elements of improv: teamwork, acceptance, adaptation and believing, you'll see the foundation we need to move forward.
There's a common mantra in improv known as 'Yes and...'
The basic concept is that you say 'Yes' to whatever you're presented with on stage, 'and...' then you add to it. For it to work, you really have to listen to what the other person said. Then, together, you're able to lay the groundwork for a scene. I believe it's also a good mantra for living. Really listen to those around you. Be positive about what they bring to the table and then add to it.
So often we get caught up in the 'No, but...' and we just end up spinning our wheels. Just because the wheels are spinning doesn't mean we're not going anywhere. I think we all need to focus on the 'Yes and...' If we do, we can all move forward together.