I’m so afraid. Here’s a short list of things I was afraid of today:
- That I’m not good enough
- That other people think I’m not good enough
- Not “a” spider, but all spiders
- Donald Glover
- Tight-fitting clothing
- That I’ll never finish writing this piece
If insecurity is influenza, than fear is the pounding headache– a symptom that you can certainly feel, but isn’t necessarily outwardly apparent. It’s a disease is that everyone has, especially when it comes to improv.
Here are the three major symptoms of insecurity/fear and how to recognize them.
There was a point where, while I was introducing myself to other improvisers, it would have been more efficient to just slate my name and hand them my resume. A simple introduction became an audition for a conversation. This behavior was borne out of the fear that others would find me lacking. It was a way to establish that I’ve done some work. That I’d achieved something, anything, really.
It’s a classic case of overcompensating– a logical reaction to feeling like you’re not very good and second-guessing yourself. I find myself slipping into this every once in a while, but it largely drops off when everyone you meet has done everything you’ve done and more.
Doing Too Much
The first time I ever improvised was at a Second City Summer Immersion. At the time, I thought it was the scariest experience I’d ever had. I was wrong, of course.
I was afraid that I was too old, too inexperienced and not funny. All of this manifested on stage as trying too hard . I wouldn’t listen, talked over my other performers and favored a joke over a grounded relationship. I wanted desperately to be accepted and validated, but that desperation prevented me from doing good work.
You’ll see this in auditions as well. A performer will be in every scene they can possibly be in simply to prove themselves. It wasn’t until I realized that everyone else was just as afraid and insecure that I was able to focus inwardly on becoming better.
Doing Too Little
Later in my career, after I had some success, I began to be surrounded by performers that were really fantastic. I was cast on a HouseCo team and a Harold team, and my teammates were all incredibly talented and funny. Instead of being empowered, I withdrew and stopped making choices on stage. I was worried– not that the audience wouldn’t find me funny– but that my castmates wouldn’t find me funny. Achieving something posed a question that hadn’t arisen before:
Do I deserve this? Am I good enough to be here?
When you think in this way, it can stop you from making bold choices. I started playing things safe, and improv stopped being exciting and started becoming scary. The remedy to this, I learned the hard way, is to fail. The emotional shock of failing should force you to change. No one is immune to insecurity.
What’s even worse is that success, which seems as if it would be the obvious remedy, perversely can contribute to even more insecurity. What hope is there of overcoming fear if acheivement doesn’t do the trick? To answer this question, I asked two of my favorite improvisers how they handle insecurity and continue to do the work.
TJ Jagodowski, Half of TJ and Dave:
Insecurity is a basic part of my makeup, so it is intrinsic in my improvisation. Starting out, it showed itself mostly in a worry as to whether I was capable of being an improviser at all. Regardless of how many classes you take or shows you do or years you spend trying, there is no certificate given to say you have officially been named an Improviser of Merit. At any time, an audience member could stand and ask what makes us think we are an improviser and we’d having nothing concrete to offer in response, except that we are doing it. In a lovely way, it’s the same as an eight-year-old saying they’re an artist because they drew that day.
That level of insecurity made me reticent to act on impulses that I believed would benefit a show, but I feared being able to pull them off. Now, my insecurity resides mostly in a worry as to whether I can serve improvisation that night in a way it deserves. Can I bring it my whole self? Can I listen with all I have? Can I serve my partner to my best ability? I know those things are ideals and I won’t be able to fulfill them, so with failure inherent– it makes the insecurity lessen somewhat.
When I first started doing improv, I had a ton of insecurities, but I didn’t even know it, which is pretty dangerous as a performer. Getting drunk after a show was one way that I used to deal with them. I also used to incorporate my insecurities into my characters more, which meant that I got the whole ‘low-status characters’ thing down pretty well because it was honest. I remember when I first started doing Armando with the original cast, there were some pretty heavy hitters on our team. I was intimidated and scared — terrified, really. So I played a lot characters who were filled with fear because I was filled with fear myself.
I thought I was going to overcome my insecurities through the support of my team or the people in the improv community, which was unrealistic. In my first 15 years of improv, I was needy. I was looking for people’s approval to make me feel better, but since my choices were based on being liked by my teammates, I wasn’t really an artist. I was just a mess.
When I went outside of improv to get help — be it therapy or supportive friends — and started to have a life outside of improv, things changed. This is the inner game, the emotional component to the work. You can perform seven nights a week, but if you are a mess in life, believe me, it’s going find its way on stage.
These days, my insecurities have lessened a lot because now I have tools to deal with them, but they never go away completely. Instead, I accept that insecurities are a part of the process of improvising. Today, when fear comes up before a show, I know that I can call someone and talk about my fear before I go on stage. After I share my fear with someone else, I go up on stage anyway, and after a couple of minutes on stage I seem to forget all about it. I can tell you if I don’t make the call, it doesn’t turn out that way. If I don’t have the luxury to make a call before a show, I will share it with a member of my improv group. I’ll say, ‘I’m feeling tentative or feel like I’m not funny.’ I am not looking for that person to make me feel better– that would be leading with insecurities– I just need to speak it out loud. The point is that for me, at least, I will always have some sort of insecurities, but the more outside help I get with them, the more effective my work will be on stage.
That being said, there is one last symptom of insecurity that should be discussed.
Auditions with no callbacks. Callbacks with no casting. You can easliy build up a tolerance to insecurity. But after failing repeatedly and realizing that you can still keep going, failing doesn’t become so bad. Nothing can make you feel more insecure, but at the same time show you that it doesn’t really matter.
It’s improv, not brain surgery.
Alex Manich is a former House Company member at The Second City Training Center and hosts a weekly improvised podcast, The Overshare. Follow Alex on Twitter @OvershareAlex.