Improv is not just a comedy art form, it can also have an effect or impact on a persons life. Everyone has a story to tell and today we talk to another Improviser as to how they got into it and what it has done for them. Today, we talk to Isaac Simon, a co-founder of Tag Out Theatre in Amsterdam as well as one of the organisers of the Amsterdam Improv Marathon.
How Improv Changed My Life – Isaac Simon
When prompted to express what improv has given me, I am drawn back to a recent set coached by the behavioral guru Joe Bill.
Joe had magically appeared in Amsterdam and the team I play with were lucky enough to book him to lead one of our rehearsals. We had all heard transcendent things about the guy.
The incredibly teachable moment occurred halfway through the rehearsal. After a variety of exercises, Joe led us through a 40 minute Armando, in which he acted as the monologist. Something he said about growing up surrounded by sports prompted me to initiate one of the first beat scenes as a football huddle filled to the brim with bros. It was a decent enough group scene, and fun to boot. I adore incredibly bro-y characters – they are among my usual cavalcade of caricature-inspired stage personas.
Somewhere in the second beat, a character from that scene, played by a fellow actor, ended up in a completely non-sports related situation with a new character. If I remember correctly, it was romantic in nature. Thinking how fun it would be to have a mega bro from the previous huddle appear and give the central character an out of place pep talk and ass slap, I went and did just that.
As I lurched off the stage, Joe stopped the entire set in its tracks and pointed his critical gaze upon me.
According to Joe, my behavior suggested that I was tacitly apologizing for the weird walk on move as I was making it. Something about the way I personified that bro, and then exited the stage, was indicative of a screeching insecurity. Boiled down to its essence, the issue was that I was visibly self conscious of the choices I was making, and transmitting to the audience and any fellow players that I was afraid of judgment for perceived strange choices, and not confident in myself as an improviser.
Upon receiving this criticism, I had a good long moment of unraveling. My improv life flashed before my very eyes, and across the expanse of over a decade I could see the same issue arising over and over again. Fuelled by some less than pleasant ridicule as a goofy kid, I had developed into an improviser who had defined himself by strange situations and wacky characters as a defense mechanism against never thinking he was nearly good enough to pull them off. And I was tacitly apologizing for them, completing a neurotic, self-deprecating circle.
Instead of losing myself in a chain reaction of misery – it’s happened before – I doubled down on the weirdness, this time just going for it without worrying how it would be judged.
In what I recall as the third beat of the set, I played a character who was insanely confident about explaining his various heart surgeries, past, present, and future, in public. My initiation was something to the tune of, “ah yes, another great day for open heart surgery!” It was met with two of my fellow players entering and finding the initiation hideously alluring. The immediate game of the scene became: Isaac says an insane thing related to surgery, and the other characters become more and more likely to mate with him.
A shift to total commitment to my particular weirdness, and my honest self for once, instead of being self conscious and worrying about having to prove the worth of my ideas post set, left me in improv serenity. At least until the end of this rehearsal.
I had told myself for many years that I did improv strictly for fun, and because I was this crazy nonsense machine. What I didn’t know, and what I owe Joe for helping me uncover, was that improv was giving me a cross section of psychological behaviors I had never had the chance to observe in such playful, illuminatingly painful clarity. As it turned out, I had used improv to subtly excuse certain behaviors rather than accept them with pride. Most likely, that was supremely unhelpful to the players I shared the stage with, and one of the drivers of some of my less than ideal performances.
Also, it needs to be stated that Joe recommended some good honest therapy, as it had helped him tremendously in his performance and teaching career (plus his life, in general). Improv was never going to be the miracle cure, but the exploratory surgery needed to get a legitimate diagnosis. It’s the play that reveals where to start the work required.
When Joe diagnosed this in me, this tacit nature of apologizing for my weirdness, of feeling subconscious shame for putting people through supposed unwanted oddities representative of my very unacceptable self, I discovered what improv had been trying to do for me, without me ever realizing it.
What improv has given me, which is definitely scary, and why I recommend it to literally everyone, is a glimpse into my imperfect self, the one I have to accept in all its strangeness and surprising normalcy – the twist is always that we’re all weird, and therefore boring, mortal, and facing a staggering, limitless climb to accept unapologetically the person we’ve always been. This is you, improv lovingly declares, now go have fun.