I’ve graduated to a new improv class. Our first meeting, we sat in a circle on tiny chairs in the elementary school and shared what we hoped were likeable details about ourselves. “My housemates got me into improv,” I said. “Even their arguments are funny.”
We got to know one another’s names with gestures and spirit animals. I was Porcupine Shavonne, my fingers splaying out like needles. We went around the room, jumping into flamingo and cat postures, calling one another’s names.
In the next exercise, we took up silent poses in the center of the circle, playing at a knighting, a pseudo-selfie of the group, whiffed high-fives. Twice, we imagined a bee had flown into the circle, and we threw our hands up, ran yelling, swatting.
This is the beauty, the strangeness of improvisation: if you don’t throw off the trappings of adulthood, reclaim the loudness and largeness of childhood, then you’re hardly improvising at all.
And part of reclaiming that loudness is letting your oddness, your awkward noises and motions and words, just be. Things happen, and then—a second later—they happened. The scene is still barreling forward, and you’re still a part of it. By which I mean, if you’re still inhabiting your embarrassment from thirty seconds ago, then you’re sunk.
All of these things I objectively understand. Sometimes I even get them right.
Then our teacher gave us “real scenes.”
We had to sit–a pair of us–in chairs, and be utterly ourselves in front of these people we’d just met, an audience of them. I was reminded of Lera Auerbach’s line from Excess of Being: “the eyes of my readers leave bruises on my skin.”
With my partner, I jumped instantly to books.
“What’s your favorite book?” he asked me.
I knew the answer to that, but there was a blunt vulnerability in answering, a risk. In my nervousness, I became Bizarro Shavonne, a caricature of myself. I have a vague, painful memory of saying that books were like people–that the author’s consciousness was transferred into a book–and so I couldn’t choose between them.
The teacher stepped in. “Tell us a favorite book of yours,” he instructed.
“My actual favorite?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “your actual favorite.”
So I said it: East of Eden, and then I was asked to explain why it was my favorite, and suddenly my introvert’s preference for deep-diving intimacy in conversation was broadcast to this audience of people whom I wanted to like, and who I wanted to like me.
Some staticky, terrified frequency lit through my brain, a low white noise. A shot of adrenaline, maybe, past which my thoughts struggled into words, into sentences.
Bizarro Shavonne took hold. She claimed she had three copies of the book, had memorized it—I don’t even have the Star Spangled Banner memorized!—and on and on, spiraling who I was into absurdity.
I knew it was absurd, but no one else did. They had only just met me.
When I returned to my seat, the next pair started up. “Rein it in,” the teacher said quickly, because they, too, had started to go to extremes. This was something he had to remind the group of several times during our real scenes: to return to normalcy, to be ourselves and not overblown, comical versions of the people we are.
And for some groups, that meant charming small-talk, a light touch, commentary on decor and the weather. There was a comforting familiarity to this, a reminder of work, the gym, the street corner.
Holy crow, I think now. Real scenes aren’t an anomaly, just some class exercise: they are everywhere, every day. We improvise constantly, and we are always testing the depth to which we can go, how honest we can be.
I wasn’t alone in that exercise. It’s unbelievably difficult—for me, there must be a deep rut in my brain’s pathways—to resist donning that mask, to avoid revealing too much truth.
But it’s double-sided. For as much as I fear giving my unfiltered self over, I also want to. Maybe this is a deep truth for all people. Maybe others want to dive deep, to show themselves completely, and for someone—maybe multiple someones—to light up, to say, “me too.”
After class, at a nearby bar, one of the women in the class leaned close to me. “Tell me about East of Eden,” she said.