I didn’t know how hard it was to make friends until I was forced to give it a try
Two weeks into living in Los Angeles, I started an improv class at Groundlings Theatre in Hollywood. Taking the class was part of my plan to fully immerse myself into the city’s creative culture, while hopefully making new friends. An inability to make new friends was one of my biggest fears in moving to a new city. But what I soon realized was that making new friends was the least of my problems. What I discovered (and I’m still discovering) is that I have a connecting-to-people problem.
This was far more troubling than the no-friends thing, and something I had never really thought about before. The thing about improv, is that you really have to listen. As a journalist (and a child of narcissists), I’ve always considered myself to be a fantastic listener. I had no choice! Except this time, instead of just staring at people as they talk, I had to respond with their same amount of enthusiasm and confidence. Much like a wireless internet connection, improv seems to demand that all circuits work in clear, logical unison in order to have fast, continuous service. And in terms of improv, the best way to ensure a clear and logical scene is by listening and responding in kind. Unfortunately, it was revealed to me through ‘playing’ in scenes that I wasn’t great at moving a story in a logical direction.
A typical scene is rooted in collective storytelling. You start with a sentence — any sentence — and follow it up with a “yes…and.” What comes after that “and” must logically help push the story forward. Oftentimes, my “yes…and’s” were too exciting. If someone said, “I went to the store to buy apples.” I would reply with “Yes, and electric rays shot out your head.” In another scene, I abandoned my instructor’s prompt of being someone who talked “loudly” and changed it mid-stream to someone who was from New Jersey. The scene moved forward but it devolved into a hot mess.
“You’ll improve, just be logical in your scenes,” a fellow Groundlings student said to me assuredly at a screenwriters event, moments before I clumsily spilled water all over her arm. At that time, I had just completed my six-week improv class at Groundlings. For her, it seemed like improv wasn’t one big reminder of her shortcomings like it was for me. She even took her confidence one step further by auditioning for Groundlings’ Basic class with the zeal of Elle Woods applying to Harvard Law School. Don’t let the name fool you, Groundlings’ Basic is not an easy class to get into. Of course, she was accepted. Meanwhile, many of my Improv Workshop 1 classmates were not picked to join Basic like she was. Were we all a bunch of terrible listeners?
“Groundlings is more actor-focused, you’d be better off taking a UCB class,” a successful TV writer/producer told me over the phone recently. “It’s not as competitive-feeling as Groundlings, and many of the exercises are similar to what you’d find in a [TV] writers’ room.”
News flash, dear reader: I’m starting a UCB improv class next week. No audition required. I just signed up. I’m hoping that in this next class, I’ll improve my listening skills. I also hope to be a better listener, and to come out of the class with sketch partners. There’s even a performance at the end of class. (God help us!)
Still, something that has stayed with me since completing my very first improv class at Groundlings is the phrase ‘choose to know.’ It’s something that my Groundlings teacher would say to guide us through a scene, encouraging us to feel confident in our instincts.
If someone said, “I farted so loudly I awoke the dead,” he would say “choose to know” and we’d have to reply in such a way that shows we knew exactly what to say next to move the story forward: “Yeah it was so loud, the street was lit with dead people.”
I felt like most of my scenes would devolve into me trying too hard to be exciting. In one scene I made my voice sound like Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade and my partner and I pretended to have played hookie from our supermarket jobs to go to a casino (I think). I kept accidentally asking him questions (we’re not supposed to do that in improv!). Instead, we have to ‘choose to know’ that we’re aware of what the other person will say next. I felt awkward, but I also loved the goofiness of it all. It didn’t matter if I was a good actress — I’m not. But I kept the scene going, and I got a laugh.
Before I left Brooklyn for Los Angeles. I attended a house concert in an airy apartment in a third-floor walk-up, facing the Flatbush Food Coop. I was nervous about moving, and all its movable parts. I had to transport my son and our two cats in my husband Sean’s beat-up 2002 Subaru. I also was on my third round of antibiotics to treat a vile case of Strep throat. At the house concert, Ana, a dark-haired Argentinian was busy with her infant daughter, who seemed like she desperately wanted to crawl on the floor. Ana was visiting from Spain and had lived all over the world. My concerns didn’t really seem to faze her: “You know, I like living in different cities,” she told me. To her, it was all just not a big deal.
As this life-long east coaster adjusts to living in a completely different place, improv has been helpful in loosening me up. Also helpful is the advice my therapist gave me over FaceTime. (I gave up NYC but I’m not quite ready to give up my therapist) She turned an old adage on its head, telling me that “if I didn’t try, I’ll know what’s going to happen.” Meaning that if I sit in my anxiety, not allowing myself to move forward, I know what will happen — nothing.
Improv hasn’t garnered friendships just yet. There were a few group texts going for a couple of days after the class ended that quickly petered out. But I’m still determined to make sketch-friends, meet people that I could potentially work with to create fun and innovative stories. I choose to know that this will work out.