How I Did Improv as an Introvert Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Show


    “Ari, there are two things that will hold you back in this life: fear, and laziness.” I gazed up at my father as he spoke, my preteen brain akin to a porous sponge. His cadence was slow and deliberate, the way it usually was when he wanted one of his lessons to soak in. “Fear and laziness. Never forget that.”

    Lying in bed that night, I couldn’t sleep. His words had disarmed me, rumbling in my skull like an unforeseen earthquake. Fear and laziness. With each passing second, the same thought dominated my mind: how could I – an introverted worrier – ever succeed in life if these things were the hallmarks of my personality? Like many classic pairings – peanut butter and jelly, Simon and Garfunkel – my worrisome nature and introversion have always been intrinsically linked. Ever since I could walk, I have opted to saunter away from social situations out of sheer worry. Worry is often parasitic and insidious in nature. It is that little voice in my head that feeds off of my fears, tempting me to revert to my reclusive ways. Mine typically comes in the form of a “What If” monologue, a stream of consciousness series of thoughts that goes something like this: What if I have a miserable time at this function? What if I can’t find parking? What if I look stupid when I dance? What if everyone can tell that I don’t belong here? ...and on and on. Give me an event and I’ll give you an excuse. There’s a party tonight? Sorry, I have to stay home and cram for a cinematography exam. Public speaking engagement? I lost my voice after my little brother gave me the flu. An introvert’s imagination knows no bounds.

    Naturally, my worry gives way to my introversion. I’ve realized that the majority of my worry stems from how others will perceive me. I choose not to go out because staying in is comfortable. There is no ice to be broken or people to impress or conversations to be had. I am safe within the confines of my little cocoon, cuddling with my cat and watching French New Wave films from the comfort of my marshmallow mattress. But comfort, as they say, breeds complacency.

    If there is anyone on this earth who is the corporeal antithesis of complacency, it is my best friend, Mia. Mia is opposite from me in practically every way. Where she is blonde, I am brunette. Where she actively seeks out adventure, I prefer to search for a binge-able television show to stream. While she loves being in front of the camera, I’m much more comfortable behind it. Where she is an extrovert, I am an... well, you get the picture. I have always admired Mia for her incredible sense of self. Middle school me desperately wanted to be like her: self-assured, spontaneous, extroverted. The mere act of watching her exist only served to highlight the many ways in which I fell short. Fear and laziness were no match for Mia. So, when she suggested that we spend the summer at an improv camp, I used a word that had long been collecting dust in my vocabulary: “yes.”

    On the morning of my first day of camp, I had a knot of Brobdingnagian proportions in my stomach. Worry pervaded every pore in my body. It was as if my subconscious could sense that I was strolling straight into the belly of the beast. The walk down Hollywood Boulevard from my mom’s car to the improv facility was akin to a death march. Mia greeted me at the entrance with an enthusiastic embrace, the stars in her eyes mirroring the ones beneath our feet. “Can you believe we’re here, Ari? Second City!”

    With a history as colorful as the posters that line its storied walls, the Second City Training Center in Hollywood was the place to be if you were an aspiring comedian, actor, or director. Although Mia and I were ascending the iconic steps, I couldn’t help but feel like I was descending into hell. Improv was antithetical to my introverted ways. Putting myself out there? Thinking on my feet? Bouncing off of the ideas of other strangers? No, thank you! Upon entering Second City, I quickly learned that my mentality would not cut it in this new space, at least not if I hoped to survive for the next four weeks. Standing alongside a cluster of chattering middle-school-aged campers, it dawned on me that my introversion made me stand out. Standing out was the last thing I wanted to do in a place like this. To blend in, I would have to masquerade as an... *gulp* extrovert.

    The chatter died down as soon as a mustached man – let’s call him “Jim” – strode into the room, a bright red marker in his meaty fist. Jim approached the dry-erase board before us and wrote two large words on it, the way a teacher would write their name on the first day of school: “Yes, and...” Jim repeated this phrase in his thick Brooklyn accent. “I’m sure all of you are familiar with this phrase,” he said. My fellow campers nodded their heads in recognition, while I was only capable of producing a blank stare. I proceeded to learn that “Yes, and...” is one of the pillars of improv. You must use this phrase in response to everything that is said on stage, thereby accepting it as truth. Doing so keeps the scene going and opens the door for new dramatic possibilities. “We will practice this principle with a classic improv exercise,” Jim declared. He placed a finger to his chin in deep contemplation, as if ruminating between various methods of torture to subject me to. “Let’s see... how about story-swap?”

    Story-swap was exactly what it sounded like: we all sat in a circle, and someone began to tell a story. “Once upon a time, there was a girl named Marceline. One day, on her routine walk to work, Marceline crossed paths with a...” *CLAP!* The sound of Jim’s clap signified that it was time for the next person to take over. This was where “Yes, and...” came into play. No matter what had previously been said, you had to continue the story, accepting whatever had been said as truth. This game of chance terrified me. As it got closer and closer to being my turn, I thought about how I would rather be anywhere but here: Death Valley, the Bermuda Triangle, Dante’s Eighth Circle of Hell... You would think that my overactive imagination would make me a natural at improv, but my worrisome nature hindered me. As if on cue, an all-consuming “What If” monologue commenced: What if I couldn’t think of anything clever to say? What if I couldn’t think of anything at all?

    Before I knew it, it was my turn to continue the class’ Frankenstein narrative. I summoned every ounce of strength I could muster and omitted what I hoped was a series of coherent words. As I spoke, I noticed something odd: my fellow campers were... smiling at me? Their eyes went wide as my story twisted and turned, until... *CLAP!* My time in the spotlight was over. I heard some disappointed groans from the group. “But I wanted to hear more!” said a nerdy-looking boy. “Yeah,” a strawberry-blonde girl chimed in, “you’re really good at this!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was good at this?

    As Mia and I departed Second City after a long day of camp, I was completely lost in thought. How could I possibly be good at something that was so outside my comfort zone? All I did was call upon the qualities I already possessed as an introvert – qualities I assumed I had to stamp out of myself to be accepted in this new environment. Since I preferred not to speak, I had to listen to the group. My naturally observant nature, something I cultivated after years of living as a wallflower, was already proving to be a valuable tool in the improv world. “So... what did you think?” Mia asked sincerely. “That was kinda fun, right?” I wasn’t entirely sure about the “fun” part, but I do know that, as I climbed into the familiar interior of my mom’s Toyota, a small smile crossed my face at the thought of going back.

    The following morning, the strawberry-blonde girl from before made conversation with me as we waited for Jim to arrive. “You’re such a talented storyteller! I wish I could come up with stuff like that,” she said emphatically. I liked her immediately. We began to bond over our deep-rooted detestation of the limelight when Jim barged into the room like a floppy-haired bull. “Alright, campers, listen up! I have an important announcement to make.” Despite his theatrical entrance, my heart was beating at a steady pace; I had been put at ease by the fact that I had gained a new friend just by being myself. Maybe I could survive this summer. Not just survive, but thrive.

    Jim informed us that summer would conclude with a grand improv showcase in which we would perform in front of a live audience, an audience that was comprised of our family and friends. *THUMP* *THUMP* *THUMP* Suddenly my heart began to race. I felt a “What If” monologue coming on, when, all of a sudden... “Hey, Jim? Do you mind if I lead this morning’s improv exercise?” The words exited my mouth before I even realized I had said them. Jim smiled at me and nodded his head in the affirmative, and I spent the afternoon pretending to be a duchess on holiday and a banker trapped inside a cat’s body and a mermaid who was afraid of water. With each new scenario, I realized that my worry evaporated when I felt like I was in control, and I felt in control when I took the lead. I was no longer in the passenger seat of my own mind; I was the driver. Even if I didn’t know what situation I was getting myself into, I could control how I reacted to it. Suddenly, improv games became an opportunity to experiment, to push the boundaries of what was dramatically possible and let loose.

    On the day of the showcase, that same gargantuan knot that was in my stomach on day one had returned. The difference was, I didn’t try to suppress it or deny it; rather, I embraced it. I acknowledged that the knot was there, and that some residual worry might be, too, but realized that it merely meant that I cared. As I stepped out onto the stage, I saw my parents beaming at me from their seats. I can still see their faces to this day; they looked so proud. At that moment, I realized just how much life I had been denying myself. I had sacrificed so many beautiful experiences because I was too worried – too afraid, too lazy – to say “yes” to life. I remember very little about what transpired on that stage. I do know that, at one point, I caused the room to erupt in laughter by imitating a dog. What I mostly recall is how I felt: empowered, capable, exhilarated at the thought of trusting my instincts and getting a favorable response.

    In the years since Second City, I have strayed away from improvisation, but I have continued to implement the “Yes, and...” mentality into my life. From voluntarily living away from home to study filmmaking, to going on dates when I’d much rather spend time with my two favorite men (Ben & Jerry), each experience has colored my life in indescribable ways. Perhaps I had preferred to be at home for so long because that’s all I knew. Or perhaps, it was because that was all I permitted myself to know.

    Art is the act of placing trust in the unknown. Although doing so can be scary as hell, embarrassment is often the cost of entry. Being an introvert didn’t make me any less of a performer, but it resulted in me having a severely limited worldview. I experienced life through the pages of my books, but never had any stories of my own to tell. Improv is the act of drawing upon all of your past experiences to create something new. In essence, you are taking different pieces of colored glass and twisting the kaleidoscope, creating a combination of elements that have never existed before, and may never exist again. With each unfamiliar experience, I have been collecting new pieces of colored glass, as opposed to the same old shades. The result? An incandescent, unpredictable, fulfilling existence that I can’t help but say yes to.