Theatre Thursday: Cracking the shell

This is another story from the before times, the long ago, which serves to remind me of two things: How much I’ve missed doing live theatre in the last fifteen months, and how much I learned and grew from doing it. Hard to believe that that anniversary show was two years ago.

Recently, I was given a reminder of what was past for me, as well as a demonstration of what is present, with the realization that the dividing line was set in October, 2016, when I went to see my first ComedySportz show as an audience member.

In January 2017, I took my first class, Improv 101 and, over the course of the following year I completed the curriculum. In January of 2018, I started performing with the Rec League, and I haven’t looked back. A Rec League “season” is one calendar quarter, so as of April, I will be starting my 10th season.

However, a couple of weeks ago in February, we had our 11th anniversary show, which is always a big deal. And this time, I finally talked my older brother and his girlfriend into coming to see me perform. The nice thing about our anniversary shows is that we have a potluck with the audience afterwards, which is not our normal M.O.

And at this potluck, as I talked to my brother’s girlfriend (I really want to call her sister-in-law, although she’s not), I noticed that my brother (well, half-brother, same Dad, different Mom) was sitting on a chair in the corner, not interacting with anyone.

It was in that moment that it struck me. Before I’d gone through the improv classes, that was me at any party where I didn’t know a lot of the people there. I would become a total wallflower and just observe, not interacting with anyone.

That was my reminder of what was past. The demonstration of what is present came six days later before our Sunday Team show. Normally, I only work box office at the theater, but every so often, a house manager won’t make it or they couldn’t schedule one, so I do both jobs at the same time, and this was one of those days.

As Box Office Manager, I only sell tickets, check people in, answer the phones, and deal with that kind of stuff. As House Manager, I also have to set up and sell concessions; supervise the ushers; fire up the theater including setting the thermostat and turning on the sound and light equipment, the projector, and the lobby TV; give the players their call times, usually starting at fifteen minutes before the show and leading up to “places;” deciding when to open the house for audience; and, finally, cuing the keyboardist and announcer to start the show.

Now combine those two, give us a really big house, and it can be a fun night where I really earn it. Both jobs involve a lot of interaction with the public, although it’s mostly transactional, so I never really see any changes in my behavior.

However, on this particular Sunday, one of the players brought an old friend along and they arrived at the actor call time, meaning that the friend was more than an hour early for the show itself. He got to hang out in the lobby with me and our one usher, and we got chatty pretty quickly, and it was somewhere halfway through our rather long conversation that I realized, “Holy crap. Before I did improv, I never would have been able to manage this, not in a million years.”

In my previous incarnation, he would have wound up doing most of the talking, and I just would have smiled, nodded, tossed in the occasional “Mmhmm,” and not offered much of anything.

Now? I had questions, I had stories to share, the conversation flowed and covered a lot of interesting topics and I didn’t feel shy or inhibited one bit.

Am I suggesting that improv is the magic cure for being socially awkward or shy or introverted?

Oh, hell yes, I am. I know who I was before improv and I know who I am after. And yes, the process started a little bit during my last phoenix trick about six months before I started improv, but it was everything I learned in improv that just cemented the direction I’d kind of started heading in without committing.

Yes, after I almost died, I became a lot less self-conscious, but improv gave it focus and purpose. Every conversation with a stranger becomes a chance to play a new scene game, except with the ComedySportz golden rule in mind: My job is to make the other players look good.

So if you do have any kind of social anxiety, or your kids do, or you just want to learn how to be more outgoing, go take some improv classes — especially if you do any kind of sales or marketing, although it also helps with customer service.

End shameless plug, but why should I have any shame about it? To paraphrase the late Sy Sperling, I’m not just a ComedySportz employee, I’m a client. And they cracked my shell of inhibition like a walnut under a sledgehammer.

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