Improv, 9/11 And The Strokes

Last Tuesday I made my long-form improv performance debut on the main stage at Improv Olympics, one of the top improv schools in the US. I’ve performed short-form improv at various venues. Short-form is the style used on Whose Line Is It Anyway. Players create spontaneously within the parameters of a particular game. In long-form, we get a one-word suggestion from the audience and from that we perform about eight scenes for a half hour.

I was very nervous all day Tuesday. It reminded me of the first time I performed standup I public. I was taking a course in Stand-Up Comedy. One day my teacher called me while I was at work. He was hosting a show that night and one of his performers dropped out. Could I fill in? I said yes; after all, that was the point of taking the Stand-Up workshop. Once I said yes, I could barely get any more work done. My heart was racing. I got to the venue – a singles dating meetup at the Jewish Community Center on New York City’s Upper West Side. My teacher, the emcee, introduced me. I walked to the stage and turned to face the audience. I felt all the fear leave my body. I did my set. It went over well.

Showtime last Tuesday night was 8:30. Along with my fellow players, I exited the green room via the door that leads to the stage. What I did not know was that the door literally opens to the stage. I went through it and there was the audience. All the fear left my body. It’s not that confidence took its place. It’s more that I had to focus on the task at hand, and that took precedence over my nerves.

Two weeks ago I gave a speech about 9/11. When the attacks occurred, I was living and working in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, two miles north of the twin towers. Though I was sure my Los Angeles audience saw on television what was going on in New York that day and the days that followed, I tried to convey what it felt like in my neighborhood – how the smell of the burned buildings permeated our streets, how all available outdoor wall space was plastered with notices about missing people who were last seen at the World Trade Center, how the only sounds on the streets were the sirens from emergency vehicles.

The speech was well-received. I wasn’t nervous about giving it, though I knew I would choke up, as it’s something I find difficult to talk about.

Obviously, that September day was horrible, but some life lessons were learned. It put work/life balance into a proper perspective. It made clear that our time on this planet is limited, so make the most of your stay. It brought home, literally, that while there is a lot of good in the world, there is a lot of evil as well. Life can be scary, and there are things more scary than speaking to a crowd or improvising a scene based on a one-word suggestion. Such presentations and performances can be nerve-wracking, but it’s doubtful they’ll kill you.

My next public improv performance is this coming Tuesday.

Winston + Strokes 2014-08-24 11.46
Yesterday Julian Casablancas, lead singer of New York City-based band The Strokes, turned 36. Today’s playlist features ten of his best songs.

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