An Actor’s Mindset: How Improv Has Changed My Life

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I was never an outgoing kid. A series of unfortunate events during my high school years, whose perpetrators undoubtedly know of my longlasting distress, left me emotionally crippled. I was shy to the point of becoming unable even to talk to friends without getting overwhelmed by anxiety. My self-esteem was dangerously low, and I found that living day-to-day became a Herculean struggle. As far as I was concerned, everything that went wrong was my fault; everything that went right did so in spite of own failings. And my failings were plenty. I felt ugly. Disgusting. Stained, inside and out. Crazy. Worst of all, unlovable. Anyone who has ever felt such emotional pain and despair understands what it’s like to live through these kinds of feelings. “Living” might be too optimistic of a word, in fact. One begins to feel like the walking manifestation of death itself.

Oddly enough, I did have a hobby that consistently brought joy to my life, and it was the last hobby anybody, including myself, would have expected from somebody like me. I was an actor. I discovered my passion late into middle school, and carried it with me throughout all of my suffering in high school. I established myself as (and I say so not to be pompous, but because it was often told to me) one of the most talented actors in the 300-some population of the school. I started with side characters, and people told me I stole the shows. I ascended to lead roles and consistently began to win awards from the school’s theatre program. Judges from the annual Illinois State Theatre Festival even selected a production in which I was a lead to be performed in front of hundreds, if not thousands, of students from across the state. When I walked on stage, people noticed and paid attention. I took command of each and every role I was given, and pulled them off with a skill that never failed to impress. One would expect, after seeing me onstage, that I would be among the most outgoing, confident individuals in the community. And yet, inside, I was broken. I frequently overheard conversations between my directors regarding the amazing dichotomy between my stage self and my “real” self, although I always hesitated to apply such a label to the dysfunctional mess that I had become.

My passion for acting, and my ever-wavering spirits, followed me into college. To my dismay, lead roles in the theatre program of Illinois State University were mostly reserved for theatre majors. After having become accustomed to lead roles, I became rather disenchanted and set acting to the backburner for good.

The consequences followed immediately. Another series of events landed me briefly in a nearby hospital. I plummeted to the worst condition I could have imagined. Soon after my discharge, though, a loose acquaintance of mine offhandedly mentioned that an improv troupe would be holding auditions. With less than two days to prepare, I resigned myself to the reality that no matter how good of an actor I was, there was no possible way I was talented enough to join “the big leagues.” College-level acting, no less than the notoriously difficult art of improvisational acting, was out of my reach. And yet I never truly gave up, for I allowed myself to hope just enough to bother attending the audition.

There was stiff competition, of course, and the senior members performed incredibly as they demonstrated what we would do during the audition. As far as I was concerned, I had already failed. But when I stepped onstage, the switch flipped. I returned to my element, nailed the audition, moved on to callbacks, and nailed them too. As abruptly as I had even decided to interest myself with the team, I was a member.

The team had existed for almost twenty years, having been formed slightly before my birth. Its name was Improv Mafia, and the senior members informed me (proudly, though not arrogantly) that they were a rather big deal in the world of collegiate improv. I was shown a stunning collection of plaques and trophies. Regional champions, national champions. They had alumni all over the country, nailing roles in professional improv troupes. In short, I had stumbled upon a group that had a decorated history, a group that had good reason to be unimaginably selective.

The other members’ reaction to my selection, and the selection of the other three newcomers, was quite unlike what I had expected. I had never experienced such a sheer outpouring of love, acceptance, and enthusiasm from people whose names I hadn’t even learned yet. As luck would have it, this love would never waver, even as I struggled to love myself.

The Mafia held to a rigorous schedule: practice five hours per week, plus a two-hour show every Tuesday. We never charged any money for attendance; we performed because we had a passion for the art, because we took it seriously. We took the ridiculous seriously, as went our motto. Naturally, you begin to form bonds with people you spend so much time with, and each person begins to spread a bit of their likeness to everyone else. During the countless hours of time with the Mafia, I absorbed many lessons and philosophies. I firmly believe that these philosophies can be applied to anyone’s life and, as with mine, provide a seemingly infinite source of self-improvement.

I say this because my life has improved immeasurably in these short few months. My self-esteem is higher than it has been in almost five years. I have newfound confidence in myself. My day-to-day life, while still pelted with occasional hiccups, is far less treacherous, all because of Improv Mafia. While it would be impossible to articulate every lesson this group has taught me, they can be distilled in such a way as to provide aid to those in need, or to simply improve a life that is already atop the waves of contentment.

Firstly, have confidence in your own decisions. When the Mafia performs, we try to avoid “being in our heads.” This means we make decisions about how our acted scene will evolve, and we fully commit to them. Nothing destroys a scene more quickly than pausing to doubt yourself. It breaks your immersion from the scene and makes it difficult to recover. Think of a movie or video game that you just couldn’t “get into,” and you’ll get a good idea of what we try to avoid while acting. Similarly, my life outside of acting improved significantly when I stopped doubting each and every decision that I made. I used to doubt every move I took, every word I spoke, and every friendship I made. As it stands now, I have the confidence necessary to commit to myself and trust that I not only have my best interests in mind, but also the ability to follow through and execute them. The difference is quite indescribable. In years past, most of my free time would be spent worrying about the state of my friendships, wondering if I had done something to harm them. Since Mafia, my mind has become much clearer, my life has become less stressful, and I can dedicate my time and mental exertion to more productive tasks.

This self-improvement comes not only to my benefit, but to the benefit of my loved ones as well. I concern myself greatly with the well-being of my friends, and I do all that I can help them in all matters, big and small. However, my capacity to help them was limited by my capacity to help myself. Nobody feels comfortable unloading their problems onto an individual already burdened with so many problems of their own. Slowly, people have begun to recognize my personal progress, and I have faith that they will trust me more to help them when problems in their lives arise. Within the improv sphere, a general guideline is to help yourself before helping your partner. That is, establish your own character and background before attempting to establish those of the person with whom you are performing. Good scenes don’t occur when both actors are so afraid to step on each other’s toes that they refuse to assert themselves.

Generally speaking, you also can’t refuse to accept scenarios that your fellow actor puts forward. If your partner remarks that the scene is taking place within a grocery store, the appropriate response is to affirm this new reality and add to it. To contradict your partner is to confuse them, deny them, and imply that their attempt at establishing the scene wasn’t good enough for you. In my daily life, affirmation is an important coping mechanism. I’ve always known that I cannot change everything in my life, but Mafia taught me to accept this and to affirm reality as it is. The serenity prayer, essentially, applied to everyday life. You make better scenes when you affirm, and your life is smoother when you affirm the cards you are dealt. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t attempt to improve yourself and better your situation; it means that such attempts shouldn’t be the determining factor of your happiness. Conventional wisdom tells us that we can never be satisfied if we think, “I’ll be happy when I get this, or when I achieve that.” You need to find satisfaction in the moment, regardless of circumstance, just like you need to find motivation to accept your partner’s reality when you act improvisationally.

Perhaps the most basic, foundational lesson I’ve learned is that it is always wise to hope. Even when I was at my lowest, I allowed myself a glimmer of hope, and now my life is better than it has practically ever been. I understand what it feels like to be hopeless, and to live day-by-day feeling that I can’t get any lower. But if I gave in to that despair, I never would have met the people who are now some of my closest friends. If you struggle to look forward to tomorrow, allow yourself one more day. If you have the strength, give yourself that glimmer, and give yourself time to see where it goes. What results may just surprise you.

Matthew Crawford

Matthew Crawford is a student of psychology at Illinois State University. He participates in a nationally recognized improv troupe, and spends his free time writing. He maintains a personal blog and portfolio website in case you'd like to hire him!

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