Stage Courage

Last night, MaryAnn Rambo blew me away.

MaryAnn has been on a weight loss journey for over a year now, and as of the last time I checked, had last 203 pounds. She blogs about it at "Repairing Me," and reading it is well worth your time. She has also begun telling her story on stage as part of a show called "Campfire" and, for the first time last night, as monologist for a long form improvisation called "Disco Lounge." Working from the suggestion "teddy bear," MaryAnn told short stories from her childhood that were the inspiration for scenes by a group of improvisers. The players were silly, blasphemous, hilarious at times, often inspired, but none of what they did would've been possible without the offers MaryAnn made with her stories.

To be fair, MaryAnn has actually been doing this for a long time. She's been running the screens at ComedySportZ, putting up images and text that comment on moments in the matches (in keeping with this year's rebranding, we're not supposed to call them "shows" anymore), finding them and projecting them so quickly that fans (rebranding word for "audience") wonder if it's all been scripted ahead of time. And she's been steeped in improv, married as she is to an improviser, attending workshops, and present at more matches than any player on the field (stage). Immersed in improv, she understands timing, beats, and most importantly for last night, what kind of material will be the most nutritious fodder for scene work.

As much as this is in her blood, MaryAnn has been extremely nervous about taking the stage to tell her stories. She's talked frequently about her nerves, and how relieved she is afterward--and thrilled--that she got through her performance without fainting/crying/vomiting. Again, MaryAnn performs every Friday and Saturday at ComedySportZ, often providing the biggest laughs with her brilliant visual and textual jokes, but all of that is done remotely. The spotlight is never on her when she's finding the perfect image to project, and her back is to the audience much of the time.

It doesn't surprise me, then, that she would be so nervous about performing on a stage, or why any of the people who tell me "I could never do that!" are speaking quite sincerely. I come from that place, too.

As a child, I never cared to be the center of attention. Introvert that I was (and still am), I was always happy to let extroverts have the spotlight. I did want to be heard from time to time, but I was never one to blurt things out: I'd raise my hand and wait to be called on. As I waited, I would carefully compose what I had to say, thinking of the perfect way to express my opinion--only to find myself grasping for words when it finally was my turn, as the anxiety of speaking publicly trumped all that careful preparation. Despite this, I knew it was important for me to be in front of others, performing with an instrument or with my voice, and so I continued to place myself in situations where I would have to project to others: reading the lesson in church (plenty of opportunities for that when you're the pastor's eldest child), playing trumpet solos in church (see above), being a DeMolay officer with a ritual part to deliver at each meeting, performing in a school play, debating bills at Youth Legislature, and, most telling, auditioning for and giving a senior address at graduation (there was no automatic spot for the valedictorian, or even that title for being at the top of the class, in my sports-obsessed high school). 

By the time I started college, I'd been in front of many groups of people, and had reined in much of my natural introverted fear of speaking. Musically, though, I was still shy--not a good quality to have as a trumpet player. I would hone my playing of a solo to near perfection, then have the performance turn into a clambake at the student music convocation we had every Wednesday morning. Nevertheless, I soldiered on, even performing a senior recital my final semester at Willamette--something not required of a music education major, but an important step for me. Graduate school made all the difference, as I was able to study with a brilliant trumpeter, Ray Sasaki, who taught me a zen approach to performing, letting go of my thoughts, sinking into the music, and feeling the sound travel from my core to the far well of whatever room I was playing in. And right there, in his studio, I felt all the stage fright I'd ever known evaporate.

I went to seminary after an abortive first year of teaching. My first half dozen sermons were from manuscripts, and I did fine with them, delivering them confidently, with just the right amount of emotion in my voice. But I wanted more: I wanted to be like the preachers who got in front of a congregation without a manuscript and held forth, telling stories that moved people as much by their delivery as by their content. So starting in my second year, as I took Introduction to Preaching, I left manuscripts behind. At first I memorized large portions of what I wanted to say, but soon I learned to keep just a bare skeleton in mind, and to allow myself to spontaneously tell the stories of both the scripture lesson and the illustration. These sermons were often awkward, particularly at transition points, but with experience, I became smoother, more confident, and ultimately able to preach myself out of all manner of dead ends. Eventually I stopped writing sermons altogether, choosing instead to allow ideas to percolate in my mind right up to the moment I stepped out and began speaking. This was word jazz, improvised performance art, using all the trumpet zen I'd picked up from Ray Sasaki to allow myself to disappear into the art I was creating.

It was the most rewarding thing I did as a pastor. I did it fearlessly and, toward the end, recklessly, deciding as I stepped into (or, more often, down from) the pulpit what direction I was going to take with a passage. In retrospect, I know this was irresponsible, a sign of how badly I wanted out of ministry, that I had placed all the exciting eggs in a single twenty-minute weekly basket, with the rest of my time on the job an ordeal to be endured until my next fix of performance adrenaline. I couldn't sustain it past my fifteenth year in the profession. I'm much happier teaching music to children.

But I do miss that crack of performing an improvised text. For about a year, I attempted standup comedy at CSz sponsored open mikes, but that just wasn't right for me. Short-form jokes that have to be workshopped to perfection are just not my cup of tea. I'm much happier telling stories that, while often humorous, do not deliver the steady stream of laughs one finds in a good standup performance. 

Why, then, have I not pursued the Campfire spotlight, as have MaryAnn and many of my other CSz friends? Even more, why have I not stayed involved with the Farm Team, practicing and performing CSz games during their weekly show?

It comes down to two things: time and fear. And yes, for all I've said about defeating stage fright, it's still a part of me, though not in a way you might expect.

First, the time: I played in one Farm Team show two or three years ago. I was okay. There was enough there for me to know I could get better if I attended more workshops, though I don't know how long it would take me to be good enough to play with the Pro Team. What I did learn from that experience, and from subsequent opportunities to participate in Pro Team workshops, is that this is not something that comes naturally to me. What I know from having so many improvisers in my life (apart from all the friends I've made at CSz, I live with one, not to mention her two improvisational children) is that getting to be really good at it takes an enormous amount of time. And my time is precious. Teaching is hard work, and coupled with a 90-120 minute daily roundtrip commute, it takes a lot out of me. It also has me up at 5:15 every morning, which means staying out until 10 or 11 (improv practices happen at night) leaves me exhausted. And knowing myself, I don't want to do something like this unless I can give it all the time and energy I need to in order to become good.

And now the fear: there are a lot of improv games that come easily for me. I often participate in warmups before shows and at workshops, and the musical side of improvising--the part I do weekly at a keyboard--has become such second nature to me that I easily slide into my zen place, listening attentively to what the players are doing and letting my fingers find exactly what needs to go with it; what Pat Short calls "listening to the listener." When it comes to scene work, though--the interactive skill that makes improv seem so magical, so natural, so real--I freeze. I can't think what to say.

And yes, I know it's not about thinking, it's about being in the scene, letting go of my thoughts and just allowing myself to react and interact as I would in a natural conversation--except I've never been all that good at natural conversations. I loved preaching, and I love storytelling, because it's just me doing the talking. It's the introvert's curse: I don't know how to act in an extroverted way. And yes, I mean "act," because my natural inclination is to listen when others are speaking. But to be part of a scene, I must also speak, and what I say must "yes, and..." what my scene partners are saying. I have to make words happen in a live context, and those words have to be natural, real, spontaneous, even though, for the real me, there is no spontaneous conversation, everything has to be thought out ahead of time.

That's what I'm afraid of: that this may be something I just can't do. For years in the ministry, I tried to make myself learn how to be a good conversationalist, to know what the visual and verbal cues were for speaking up and being engaged as more than a listener. It was hard work, and I never felt like I mastered it. My few experiences of doing scene work have kicked me into that same place, an extremely uncomfortable place for someone who heard all through his failed career that this was something he needed to do better.

Any good improviser will tell you that scene work is hard, and it's something you only get better at with practice. I've seen plenty of novice improvisers struggle with it. Many of them plateau. Some shine. I'm afraid of the plateau, afraid of having that deer-in-the-headlights experience, afraid that I just don't have the time to spend teaching myself not to deliver cringeworthy scene work, and this, more than anything else, keeps me off that stage. Someday, I'd like to get over this. Short form, long form, any form, it all looks like so much fun, and I know from seeing some masterful performances by players more deeply introverted than me that it is very possible, with practice, to put oneself into an extroverted character and get over oneself; but it does take practice. It will take practice. Lots of it. Just not right now.

Though as for storytelling: yeah. Any time. Put me up there with a microphone, and I'll tell you a story that will blow you away. Just don't expect me to be super-gregarious in the receiving line afterward.

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