Improv and the Art of Terrifying Myself

I’ve always been a shy person, the kind who fears public speaking and feels awkward at parties. When I’m in an unfamiliar situation or talking to someone I don’t know well, I speak too quietly, stumble over my words, and let my mind race with anxiety. Last year, I decided I needed to be proactive about becoming more confident — so I signed up for an improv class.

As a big fan of comedy (standup, sitcoms, sketch), I had heard improv veterans say that it had taught them to think on their feet, stay in the moment, and work well with teams. I had visions of finishing class with a newly commanding voice, able to crack spontaneous jokes in front of roomfuls of strangers.

When I arrived for my first class at Minneapolis’ HUGE Theater, I was queasy with nerves. As my classmates introduced themselves, though, I realized that most of them were just as terrified as I was. They were all there to try something that they'd never done before, that for most people is inherently unsettling: performing onstage with no idea what will happen next. People generally go out of their way to seem cool and in control at all times. In class, I was surrounded by people making the conscious choice to give up control, to look ridiculous for the sake of learning and having fun.

Our shared willingness to make fools of ourselves bonded us beginners together. As we got to know each other, we grew more and more comfortable jumping up in front of the rest of the group with a weird noise or dance or twist in the story. The class came to feel like a safe space to be utterly silly, to try and fail and keep trying.

That mutual trust wasn’t just a nice side effect; it was central to our learning. Though solo improv is possible, the form tends to rely on working closely with a partner or a team. Because you’re using live performance to create a story together from scratch, you have to be closely attuned to everything your teammates are saying and doing, and be ready to take your place in the story. That’s why the “Yes, and” rule is important: When you say “Yes” to your teammates’ decisions, you’re continuing the work of building something new. If you say “No,” you’re shutting down and leaving everyone hanging.

The class also pushed me to stop standing back and avoiding the spotlight. "It's always your turn," my teacher, Sean, would say over and over, urging us out of the lulls that would fall when everyone was second-guessing themselves. We were all expected to take our turns onstage, and to do so without hesitating or worrying too much about what would happen when we stepped forward.

Shortly after I finished my first of two classes, a friend of mine told me that she could see its effect on me: I spoke more loudly and clearly, she said, and seemed more comfortable with myself. Now, a year later, I wonder if my improv-induced boldness has faded, or if it was just a fluke. I still get nervous and stammer shyly in many social situations; my dreams of complete confidence haven’t quite come true. But the value of the trusting space to be silly will stay with me, as will the imperative of “It’s always your turn,” which can remind me to volunteer for tasks and make decisions without dragging my feet.

And I've been reminded that you can't actually die of embarrassment. Trying something new inevitably comes with moments of confusion, frustration, and mistakes  and in the case of improv, moments that still make me cringe months later  but the sense of accomplishment and of using your brain and body in a new way is worth it.