There’s nothing that makes you feel less like a successful adult than answering the dreaded “what are you doing after graduation?” with “I’m working at a summer camp” besides ending with “and then I’d like to pursue some kind of theatre or improv.” It’s pretty humbling to tell people your loftiest goals and know they are probably imagining you being booed off a stage and consequently being paid in munchkins at Dunkin Donuts until retirement.
That said, when I was offered a couple low-end jobs teaching high school debate in the St. Louis area a few weeks before college ended, I barely asked any questions. I just took the contracts and ran, happy to escape an unknown future and recession worries.
Making a career out of theater is an all-or-nothing proposition: you’re either in a legitimate city and fighting hordes of talented people for every opportunity, or you’re in a less artistic city without any opportunity, period. I figured St. Louis would be the latter, so I spent a couple months immersed in work.
One of the main tenants of improv is called yes and, which means not only accepting the circumstances and situation that you’re given, but adding to it with enthusiasm. I loved this principle when it meant taking an audience’s suggestion that my scene partner and I were on spring break in Moscow and adding that we still insisted on wearing bikinis.
But in real life, I was downright sucking at the yes and. Both teaching jobs paid close to nothing and were completely exhausting. I wasn’t doing anything related to improv, and I was disappointed in myself for letting my creative side atrophy.
Eventually, I decided that something had to be done about my improv drought. After Googling around, I found a small company in St. Louis. It was less than glamorous and not even completely organized, but there was, contrary to my expectations, a surprising amount of diverse talent.
There was the L.A.-bound nineteen-year-old with recession-related financial trouble keeping her at home an extra couple years, the recently-laid-off middle-aged man who (in an absence of things to fill his time) jumped back into an old hobby, a med student who improvised to keep his stress levels down, and then me, the wandering college grad. I started going to open jams, and eventually I was cast in the group’s mainstage show. Not only could I completely accept that the show had to be a no-frills production in order to run, I was willing to add my own elbow grease and patience in order to get it off the ground.
Another key improv stage rule is to never ask questions. When you ask a question, you put others on the spot to make something up. Instead of asking your partner “What should we do?” or even “Do you want to go to ice fishing?” you should say, “We’re going ice fishing!” It moves everything along faster when you remember there’s no right answer because everyone’s making it up as they go along.
As I added myself to the mix of St. Louis improvisers, I stopped asking questions and started doing. I volunteered to teach a section of “Beginning Improv.” Instead of asking myself if the short-form I was doing in dinky bars on Thursday nights was “enough” to fuel something bigger in my career down the line, I just performed with joy and had faith the experience was the education I needed at this time in my life.
I’d been missing this kind of faith for a long time. When I entered college, everyone harped on classes being what you made of them. I think most people are familiar with this concept. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where you study because if you work hard in class, you’ll learn a lot, and if you don’t, you won’t. The amount of cool experiences and friends you make is somewhat proportional to how many activities and to what degree you get involved.
But by the time I graduated, this advice was nowhere to be found anymore. It was as if getting a degree represented an obligation to be responsible, and only taking a few calculated risks can be part of that societal obligation. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Don’t waste your time. Immediately after entering the working world, I got it. Time is more valuable when you’ve got bosses to please. Money is tighter. Going places requires a cost-benefit analysis. It’s like college is a play; as an actor, you get to be as wild or creative with your choices as you want within the context of the scenes already set for you. Post-grad is improv—nothing certain, nothing set, barely any rules. There’s a lot to risk, but so much more to gain.
Sure, improvisers have an obligation to their audiences not to bomb onstage. But they also have an obligation to create something unique and wonderful. It’s never as exciting to see an artist mimic what’s there, what’s been done, as it is to see something expand. Yes, I might have the responsibility to keep myself out of debt, but I also have a responsibility to society to dream big and make those dreams happen for myself wherever I am, in whatever situation. It’s not enough to plan to move to a bigger and better city. It’s not even enough to accept the small opportunities where I am. I have to actively work on building what is here—my community, myself—to be better.
In improv you’re always supposed to play to the “reality” of a scene. Meaning, the audience can only take a caricature for so long. People want to see the good stuff—not what you think they want. The reality is that I’m 22. Maybe there are things I’m supposed to do—feign embarrassment to peers about spending my weekends at high school debate tournaments to earn a buck, get nervous that the clock is ticking on bigger dreams. But by feeling the way I think I should feel about my life situation is only making me another example of post-grad life being crappy. I’d much rather fill this upcoming graduating class with hope. Yeah, I’m broke, but teaching kids to write has still been fulfilling. No, I’m not on a fast-track to professional acting; I’m learning what it’s like to grow something from the ground up. I can only hope that at least to a few young grads somewhere that’s an attitude worth yes and-ing.