Theatrical Improv: Honing Your Performance Edge

Theatrical Improv: Honing Your Performance Edge

Battling the Butterflies

I am already sitting in the dim backroom of the comedy club when my symptoms kick in. There are still four acts to go before my improv team, Hot Cheese, takes the stage with no script, no props, nothing but the task of making people laugh. The crowd seems supportive enough, even a little tipsy, but it doesn’t make a difference. My palms are sweaty, my heart is racing. Somehow, out of nowhere, my nose starts to run. I look anxiously at the clock, and a nervous gag erupts in my throat, which I disguise with a loud cough. I wonder if people can see my pit stains. My leg bounces under the table, and I can barely focus on the other comics on stage. I’ll be going up soon. I have to catch my breath.

My experience as a performer dates back to age 3, when I danced a very spirited tap routine to “Baby Beluga” for the parents of my preschool class. Since then, I’ve been in plays, pageants, choir performances, music videos, and cheerleading competitions, and for about three years, I’ve been doing improv comedy in New York City. But in every scenario, performance anxiety has affected me. About an hour before my call time, without fail, I become overwhelmed with fear and paralyzed by “what-ifs” as I obsess over mistakes I haven’t made yet.

The funny thing is, an improv performance isn’t even something you can prepare for. Sure, you can practice and hone your skills, but there’s no rehearsal. The entire idea is to let go, have fun, and see what you come up with on the spot. The more pressure an improv performer puts on themselves, the more likely they are to get in their own way—true for nearly all performers, athletes, and even business people. When our anxiety gets the best of us, that’s when we choke.

Finding Stillness in the Chaos

As for me, I knew my fears and worries were all irrational. I had already experienced the worst that could happen while performing—freezing up, saying something stupid, falling on my face. The embarrassment is always short-lived, and the feeling of failure never lasts. So what was I even afraid of? I decided to stop letting pointless anxiety interfere with my life and instead to do something about it.

I started by downloading the Headspace app and committing myself to “Take10,” a guided meditation for beginners that would only require me to devote ten minutes a day for ten days. It didn’t seem like much of a commitment, and there would be instructions. Plus, I had two shows coming up that week, so it was worth a shot.

I began Take10 in the morning, a few days before my next show. Listening to Andy’s voice on the edge of my bed, he encouraged me to sit comfortably, notice the sounds around me, and bring awareness to my body and breathing. Although I was distracted at first—”What is my cat doing on the kitchen counter?”—I was surprised how the act of breathing deeply improved my overall relaxation. I felt slightly relieved about the usual stressors of my morning, like my commute and the start of the workday. Could a few minutes of stillness have that much of an impact on my mood?

As Andy recommended, I continued Take10 at the same time over the next two mornings. The process got a little bit easier, and I was surprised at how fast ten minutes flew by. Each session resulted in a subtle relaxation lasting about an hour or two before the New York stimuli would overwhelm me, and I’d become tense and frantic again. But it did appear to be working. I hadn’t realized how rare it was in my daily life for me to sit and breathe deeply, to take a moment to be still and free. Just making an effort to do that made me feel calmer.

Applying the Lessons

It was the “Changing perspective” animation from session three of Take10 that gave me a conscious, clear way to think about stillness in my mind. In it, thoughts are compared to passing cars in traffic. The idea isn’t to stop these cars but rather to let them go on by. In fact, the more you try to stop your thoughts, the more you actually fill your head. I’d noticed this pattern with my performance anxiety as well. The more I beat myself up for feeling nervous, the harder it was to relax. Perhaps with practice, I could treat my feelings of anxiety like passing cars—acknowledge their presence and let them go by.

When the day of my performance finally arrived, I decided to switch things up a bit. Instead of sticking to my schedule and meditating in the morning, I wanted to see what would happen if I did it right before the show when my anxiety is at its peak. Heading toward the venue that evening, I tried to find a quiet spot in Manhattan during rush hour. The best I could do was a bus stop on Seventh Avenue, surrounded by traffic, pedestrians, and honking horns. So I sat down, put on my sunglasses, and tested the skills I’d learned so far that week.

I accepted the sounds around me, then let them fall out of my mind. I counted each breath as I mentally scanned my body to become aware of how I was feeling. I was still and quiet for ten minutes in the middle of one of the busiest places on Earth, and afterward, I felt like a different person. I walked into the bar five minutes before my show without rushing, without wringing my hands. I didn’t feel the urge to babble nervously or to have a pre-show cocktail. I wasn’t gagging or coughing; my shoulders weren’t tense. I wasn’t even sweating all that much. I just felt comfortable and ready for whatever was going to happen.

The performance itself wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but I loved how I felt so much that before my next show, I went to the same dirty bus stop in rush hour traffic and meditated again. In fact, I think I’ve found my new pre-show ritual. I’ve only ever managed to do ten minutes at a time, but I can already tell that if I keep it up, meditation could have a transformative effect on my anxiety as a whole. In the meantime, I’m not being hard on myself. Learning to meditate is a process, and managing anxiety is a complicated challenge that takes time. So I’m being patient with my mind. After all, meditation and improv have the same cardinal rule: don’t overthink it.

Embracing the Unexpected

As a fellow performer explained to me, through regular meditation practice, she trains her mind to let thoughts pass through without judgment or obsession, then let them go. She said she’s able to apply this skill outside of meditation as well, to disengage with unproductive feelings in her everyday life, like anxiety.

I’ve found a similar benefit in my own improv practice. The entire idea is to let go, have fun, and see what you come up with on the spot. As one of my improv teachers, Joya, says, “The more pressure an improv performer puts on themselves, the more likely they are to get in their own way.” Her Full Spectrum Improvisation classes have helped me embrace the unexpected, to treat my feelings of anxiety like passing cars and let them go by.

Improv classes are a great way for performers of all levels to hone their skills and build confidence. Whether you’re a seasoned stage veteran or a complete beginner, the principles of improv can translate to all areas of life. By learning to think quickly on your feet, explore your creativity, and communicate effectively, you’ll unlock new levels of self-assurance that will shine through in your performances and beyond.

So if you’re struggling with performance anxiety, don’t let it hold you back. Try incorporating mindfulness practices like meditation into your routine, and consider exploring the world of improv. Who knows—you might just discover a whole new side of yourself in the process. And if you’re in the New York area, be sure to check out the Musical Theater Center for improv classes and other performance opportunities. The stage is waiting, and with a little preparation and a lot of letting go, you’ll be ready to take it by storm.

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