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“Let’s welcome to the stage, 100 Years of Attitude!”

Someone pulled aside the red velvet curtains, and I numbly stepped out on the stage. The seering stage lights blinded my view of the audience as they politely applauded. I felt like a helpless prisoner about to be interrogated. What was I doing here? I have no notes or script to prepare me. Why did I sign up for this?

I’ve always hated performing in public.  Yet, a couple months ago, an editor of a literary magazine which published one of my poems, contacted me to see if I wanted to take part in one of their poetry readings in the city. I was flattered and said yes, because she was the first editor of a literary magazine to publish one of my poems.  But the thought of reading my poem in public was nerve wracking.

            “I think I should take a public speaking class.” I said to my best friend, Peggy, while we were on Skype.  I missed having her in the city. She quit the long, brutal hours of her Wall Street job to take a year off. She is now volunteering to work on an organic farm in New Zealand in exchange for free room and board.

“I know a friend who took an improv class.,” said Peggy. “He really enjoyed it! You also learn to think on your feet.”

As an introvert, the thought of getting up on stage and improvising a scene without a script was frightening to me.  However, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself.  Lately, I had been getting bored with my job doing marketing analytics. Now I had a new boss who was a real micromanager. He often texted me during evenings and weekends to ask me about my projects and deadlines,. I fantasized about quitting my job and moving to New Zealand to join Peggy. With the majestic landscape of New Zealand to inspire me, who knows what glorious poems I could write?

 “Maybe an improv class could be interesting. “ I said.  And what better way to combat my boredom than to expose myself to pure, unadulterated terror?

During my first improv class, we played some strange theater games. In one game, each person would have to get up in front of the class and say something that was true or false about himself or herself. The class would then guess if the statement was true or false. Hmm. I thought. I’m probably rather simple to categorize in people’s minds. Asian-American. Female. New Yorker. Wouldn’t it be easier to say something true about myself?

“I’m a surfer chick from Hawaii who loves to hang ten. Over the years, I’ve ridden the monster waves all over the island.  One time, I had fight off a shark in the  ocean by punching him in the nose.”

“Who thinks her statement is true?” asked Josh, the improv teacher.

To my surprise, almost half the class raised their hand. They actually believed me? Wow!

After the theater games, we proceeded to make up scenes based on an audience suggestion. For instance, if someone suggested a pencil, we would somehow weave the subject of a pencil into the scene. According to Josh, the best way to build up a good scene was to accept what your partner has brought to the scene  and add to it by saying “Yes and.”  By making eye contact and listening, we could be more present in the scene. I tried to follow his advice, but I often felt clueless and uncomfortable in these improvised scenes. Before I forced myself to step into a scene, my heart seemed to beat 1,000 times per minute, and my face felt like it was burning off. Yet, gradually, it became oddly liberating to step outside the pattern of normal, everyday conversation and say silly things. 

In the beginning, I felt disappointed that I wasn’t getting a lot of laughs in my scenes. 

“How I get more funny in my scenes?” I asked Josh. “People don’t laugh a lot when I’m on stage.”

“Marla, just loosen up. Your biggest mistake in improv is being afraid to make a mistake,”said Josh. “Don’t worry about the laughs. Just concentrate on being present in the moment and building on the scene. If you look like you’re having fun, the laughs will naturally follow.”

            When I spoke to my mother about quitting my job and maybe taking time off to work on a farm in New Zealand, she got nervous.

            “Don’t quit your job.” said my mother. “You work for a very good company. They have a good 401(k) plan. You should be saving for your retirement.”

            When I repeated our conversation to Peggy, she said, “Oh, come on! It would be great if you went to New Zealand. Do you want your tombstone to say, Marla Young. She saved for her 401(k)?”

After my improv class ended, I was filled with trepidation.  We were required to give a class show to a live, paying audience.

As my improv class prepared to go on stage for the class show, my hammering heart was threatening to burst out of my chest. Suddenly, I understood how rock stars might turn to drugs and alcohol as a crutch before facing thousands of people at a concert.  Even though we had an audience of only about 60 people, I felt as if I was about to face a stadium full of spectators.  Did I end up smoking a joint or pounding down tequila shots? No! My only defense against my rising tide of panic was a cup of chamomile tea.  I needed to stay sharp and lucid for my improv scenes. In a way, I felt braver than someone who turned to more potent substances for comfort. I was facing my fear at full strength.

            “Does any one have a suggestion for the scene?” asked Josh.

“Broccoli!” shouted a guy in the audience.

Broccoli? I thought. What a boneheaded suggestion! What the hell I am supposed to with broccoli?

When I stepped forward on the stage, I felt like I was throwing myself into a deep ocean and flailing about.

Luckily, my classmate Neil stepped into the scene with me. At least I had a friend in the scene to tread water with me.

Not knowing what else to do, I threw my arm around Neil’s shoulder as if we were the best of pals. The audience laughed before either of us said a word. We must have looked ridiculousbecause Neil is much taller than me, and he had to hunch down like an old woman while we walked together.

Finally, I said,“The broccoli at the office party was delicious!” 

“Thanks!” said Neil. “I made the broccoli dish myself!”

“I think the mouse droppings added a lot of flavor!”

“Yeah, and so did the garnish of rat hair.”

“I think fresh bat wings also go well with broccoli.”

“Thanks for the tip. I’ll try adding bat wings next time.”

“You’re a cool CEO,” I said.

“And you’re a cool….file clerk.”

“Hey, let’s keep partying, Mr. McGuire! We can stop by my cubicle.”

            I heard laughter exploding around me, but we had to keep going and not get distracted.

“Sure, ” said Neil. “That sounds like a blast!”

We walked together in lockstep since all this time I kept my arm around Neil.

“Hey, Mr. McGuire! I got some whiskey in my desk drawer. Wanna take a few swigs?”

“This looks like some top shelf whiskey,” said Neil, pretending to hold a bottle and gulp down some whisky.

“I also got a stash of crystal meth and a bag of heroin!”

Uproarious laughter ensued.

“And scene!” said Josh to end our scene.

The audience erupted with applause as we took our bows at the end of the show.  I was elated when people approached me and complimented me on how funny I was. I felt so invigorated. It was like getting through a brutal battle and coming out victorious. It was fun to hang out afterwards with friends and celebrate surviving the show. I wished Peggy could have seen my show.

A few weeks after the improv show, a young man whom I didn’t know approached me on the subway and said he remembered me doing a funny scene about an office party. It was amazing to me that he remembered my improv performance and found it so memorably funny. I had never imagined this would be possible.   

On the day of my poetry reading, I couldn’t stop my heart from pounding before I stepped up to the microphone, but it seemed like a cakewalk compared to going on stage and making up my own lines. At least I had a poem to look at and read.

After my poetry reading, I called my mother.  

“How did your poetry reading go?” she asked.

“It went great! I think my improv class helped me prepare.”

“Oh, good for you, Marla.”

“Mom, I really hate my new boss. He is constantly contacting on nights and weekends about my work, and expects me to respond immediately. I feel like I have no down time.”

“Bosses come and go. You have a good, stable job, Marla. It has great benefits. And they match you 10 percent on your 401(k). Where else can you find that?”

“Mom, I’m feeling really burned out. I’d like to take time off from work and join Peggy in New Zealand. She’s able to get free room and board by volunteering on an organic farm.”

“Is it safe to live out there in the middle of nowhere? They might have some dangerous insects there. Remember Lisa, the daughter of my friend, Mrs. Lin? She was bitten by a tick in California and is now paralyzed by Lyme disease. She has to go around in wheelchair.”

“Peggy never mentioned to me about any dangerous ticks in New Zealand.”

“If you leave for a year, you will fall behind all the new technology in analytics. I’m worried you will left behind in your field.”

“I can take courses when I get back. Look, it will all work out.”

My mother sighed deeply. “You’re an adult, Marla. Do what you have to do. But don’t blame me if you can’t find a job when you get back.”

Click.

I hung up the phone too. Then I emailed Peggy:

I’m quitting my job next week. See you in New Zealand!

I hit Send.

Now, whenever I am about to do something that makes me anxious, I can just say to myself, look, you got up on a stage without a script and made up scenes that made people laugh. This seemed terrifying and impossible to you, but you actually became good at it. How can you be scared of this situation?  It’s nothing compared to getting up on stage. Then I am able to look at my fear in the eye and say, Yes and.

August 12, 2020 01:40

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