June 24, 2016 Amy Shostak

Facing Your Fears

What is the worst that could happen on stage?

There is no limit to how many awful on-stage moments we can dream up when we are standing backstage. Fear and judgement are the evil siblings to joy and trust, and we all have moments before, during or after a show where the whispers of our nagging fears take hold.

“I’ll embarrass myself.”
“People will think I’m dumb.”
“I won’t have anything to say.”
“If I follow my impulse, I will say something offensive.”
“I’ll trip and fall.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, and how we can better use what scares us rather than try and stifle it. As Jan Henderson, a clown teacher at the University of Alberta says, “What you resist will persist.”

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Graham Meyers & Kirsten Rasmussen at VIIF 2013. Photography by Liam Robert.

A few years ago, when I had to opportunity to direct the ensemble at the Vancouver Improv Festival, I took a gamble on a format. I had the whole ensemble write down their on-stage fears. We didn’t workshop it. Half the ensemble would do this mystery format, the other half would do one we spent a whole day working on.

We had huge sheets of paper, with the fears written on them. I reworded all the fears to be active challenges, that could be played.

“I am controlling.”
“I am too loud.”
“I am blank.”
“I ask only questions.”
“I am furniture.”

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In this photo, Ben is playing “I am furniture.” Kareem Badr & Ben Gorodetsky at VIIF 2013. Photography by Liam Robert.

I wrote out about 20 different fears; all of them very different. Performers would step forward, read the fear off their paper, and hold it up so that the audience could read it too. Each person knew their own challenge, but not their scene partner’s. The chances of getting your own fear were low, but not impossible. Then two performers would do a scene together, playing out their challenge. The combinations of fears (“I am too angry” with “I’m annoying”, or “I can’t stop laughing” with “I am robotic”) lead to really bizarre and delightful scenework.

I think this show was successful because:
-It could have utterly failed. The show in itself was scary, and committing to it was a risk.
-The audience was let in; they saw both challenges, and watched the players discover each other’s  in the moment
-The improvisors committed 100%; the scenes did not look like the improv scenes we often watch. Each scene had a completely unique dynamic.

Once a fear is no longer something you are working against, or resisting, it becomes fun to play. Tripping a lot, or mumbling a lot, are great choices, as long as they are choices. The audience knows when we are nervous, or trying to hide something, but if we embrace it and do it more, we can harness our fears for good. And, once we stop resisting something, that feeling will pass, and we can move on to something new.

The gang at the Hideout Theatre in Austin, Texas, recently performed this format, directed by the lovely Roy Janik, at their 47-hour improv marathon. It reminded me how much I loved this experience!  You can read all the great fears that the Austin improvisors wrote down here.

Photographs of the 2013 Vancouver International Improv Festival by Liam Robert Photography.