Improv Conspiracy Blog

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  January 27, 2016

On Thursday 14th January, I took to stage at the Improv Conspiracy Theatre in the Melbourne CBD as part of Dad Fight, a Fresh Blood team making its debut performance.

I have been studying at the Improv Conspiracy since April 2015.  In that time I've watched innumerable shows: Harolds, Remixes, Jams, Cage Matches, etc.  Each one a delight in its own right, each one making my heart healthier for the privilege.  I sat and watched in awe of these performers and a deep desire to join their echelons, to become part of a team and tread the boards of the Improv Conspiracy Theatre as a performer. 

I auditioned and had my wish granted when I was assigned to the Fresh Blood program, with the infallible Simon McCulloch as our coach, and training began.  Different from studying, no longer a set curriculum to follow, but adding our own influence to how we trained, and with Simon’s wise guidance, a chance to make the team our own.

As we trained, getting ready for our first show, I realised that as an improviser what I needed in my career, in my improv journey, is to perform.  It’s important to log some serious stage time.  There is only so much, watching, reading and studying you can get under your belt before you have to get up and do it.

There is no substitute for performing in front of an audience, who have chosen to sacrifice their time to watch you. Even when tickets are free, time is valuable and they’re giving it to you. The stakes are high and it’s scary. We have to deal with the fact it all rests on our shoulders to make a good show, it is up to us as the performers. Harsh, we have to but deal with it.

So, I thought I’d share my experience of performing, a quote and a little analogy I use to prepare myself. An understanding I've grown to accept and use every time I get up in front of people to act:

‘Courage isn’t just a matter of not being frightened. It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.’

Coming from stage shows in London, I've stood many times behind the black flat waiting for my first cue of the show. Listening intently for the line, or waiting for the lights that mean it is my turn to step out in front of the audience. I’ve stood experiencing the overwhelming fear and pure dread at what I’m about to do.

I’ve known actors in their late sixties who have to vomit before going on stage, and yet their cue comes they walk and absolutely nail it, night after night. It maybe their hundredth show yet their hands tremble as they wait backstage.

How do they do it? Because they understand fear is a superpower. It makes you stronger, faster, you listen more, keeping you in the moment, alert to everything around you. They learn to use the fear and anticipation like a Jedi uses the force.

The hard part is that the only way to learn this is to get up on stage and do it. So, I wanted to share a little analogy I use to understand and anticipate what I feel in every single performance and why I love it. The answer I have to questions you might find yourself thinking as you wait for your team to be announced: “Why am I doing this?”

I equate performing on stage to a rollercoaster ride, but one I can control. I’m not a passenger, but one of the drivers on this hypothetical train. Beforehand, the ride stands towering over me, intimidating and gigantic. A promise of exciting twists, turns, ups and downs, everyone is going to feel something. We watch other teams thunder along the tracks, screaming, having a much better time than we feel we ever could, but I want a taste. Others shoot around their hands up in the air like pros. Don't they make it look easy?

We queue for hours, watching, getting nervous, hours seem like weeks as trains are filled, to leave the station and clunk up the lift hill. Each train bringing me, us, ever closer to our moment.

My team are nervous, talking about anything else other than what's before us, and warming up with our favourite and least favourite exercises. Progressing up the queue, taking comfort that we're all in it together. Overhead the screams, the rush of noise, the thunder of the track no longer looks like fun but a frightful experience only a fool would embark upon. That question runs through my head: “Why am I doing this?”

It's our turn, my team is next in line. I climb aboard the train, forgetting how to sit down in a seat. “What do you do with your hands?” “Will my bag be safe?” “Food afterwards guys?” We trust the person manning the board of buttons will not mess up our cue, we're in their hands for a smooth start. Up the lift hill as the lights come up. We hear our cue, climbing ever higher the click, click, click of the claps as we trundle up the lift hill onto the stage. At the top, we get a suggestion and the drop, down we go. We throw our hands up into the air for an opening, wooshing and sooshing. A whirlwind of emotion, a helix around a taboo issue.

“Car bomb” was our team’s first suggestion. I listen for my team’s screams of joy. A barrel roll of conflict, a lift and a dip as status is dropped. A corkscrew flipping us over drilling down on the one weird thing. Brakes, another lift hill, a moment to breathe in the group games, reconnecting with the team as I realise “this is the best!” I’m having a fantastic time. My stomach drops. Back into the whirlwind of speed and thrills, a huge loop around as we call back to earlier scenes. Building up to a roaring crescendo and lights. Blackness, we hit the brakes, rolling back into the station. Twenty minutes could have been ninety seconds, time almost has no meaning. The show is over.

Was it good, was it bad? Right then it doesn’t matter. Lost in euphoria as you climb off the train with your friends, people you trust with your life thanks to the adventure you've just embarked on. Your legs are a little wobbly. Everyone is congratulating you on a good show. It could have been awful, but it doesn't matter. You survived, the adrenalin washing away the memory like the sea eroding a sand castle. Notes will come, you'll learn from it. You'll queue up to another rollercoaster and feel the experiences and emotions all over again. You want to do this every day, forever.

It doesn't get easier, adrenalin will continue to course through those veins with every ride, but the more you ride, the stronger the muscle (your heart, your head) and the more capable you are of controlling it, dealing with deeper emotions. Lifting heavier and heavier ones, climbing to new heights, taking your audience on a better and better ride. You start remembering the moments on the rollercoaster, knowing when to barrel roll, corkscrew, loop-de-loop. Your hands will still shake before your hundredth show. You’re still scared, but your courage will make you step out and be amazing.

In all it’s only analogy, but one that speaks to me and helps me deal with pre-show nerves, to access my superpower, my one happy thought that lets me fly, to remember to cherish each moment of being on stage, as those moments will never come again, no show will be exactly same as it is right then. To not let the post show euphoria or depression affect me too much. To remind me why I fell in love with acting and improv as a form, as a lifestyle.

I love performing, more than anything. The team I'm part of, so powerful, brave and courageous, a team that made me cry with laughter on our first Harold, so hard I forgot to breathe, it winded me. I couldn't help but feel like the luckiest guy in the whole community after our first performance.

My only complaint: I have to wait in the long queue for two weeks before I can ride with my team again.

Yes, there are other opportunities to perform, and if you want to ride on the rollercoaster there are so many in the Improv Conspiracy's theme park to gain some of that golden experience; The Jam, BYOT, Cage Match, Rotating Tap, Tournament of Teams, etc.

Thank you to the wonderful audience who saw Dad Fight’s debut show. Remember that our shows are free, so even if you laughed only once, that's a free laugh. (You're welcome).