Level E, the final Level of Intro to Improv (or, as I now refer to it, Anyone Can Improv for $300 Every Five Months) will in my mind always be accompanied by the theme song to Growing Pains. Not because of any Allen Thickeness, or because I am aware that Leo DeCaprio was on that show…but because Level E was painful for me…painful.
My boys were four months old when I started Level A, and only started sleeping through the night mid-way through Level C. I was exhausted in a way that a mother of twins can only understand. (For those of you with one kid…imagine finally getting that kid to settle down/eat/be clean/be happy/have clear sinus passages only to have the other one have the exact same problem.) Raising twins is like living in a Möbius strip. It never ends and while you have a pretty good idea where it starts, at some point, it doesn’t matter. But it’s cool and other people coo and ahh and it’s totally worth it. Plus, there are parts of your brain that wonder if you can use a skateboard somewhere in the process.
So my brain meandered and went in weird ways, much like that previous paragraph. My thoughts made sense to me, and usually no one else.
The first day of Level E, I was flying from a terrific Level D “show,” which I desperately needed. (I got great feedback from instructors and audience members alike — total strangers, not just my mom. The music director and tech person also stopped me to compliment me.)
Strange things happened in Level D…alliances made, parties and drinking appointments held without everyone’s participation. A core group of young 20-something alpha males banded together to form a filming group and used that time to also rate and review everyone else in the class.
I was privy to some of this because I had been asked to act in the films — not write, mind you, but act. I’d been “cast” because two of our three instructors had noted in class that I was a “strong actress” (which was all sorts of awesome…and no I was not the only one complimented in class by these instructors.) The writing was for the boys, only. Which meant I was asked to be a lot of nurses, mothers, sisters, lovers, and whores in the films.
This was no different from class, where most of the women got the suggestion from classmates to be nurses, mothers, sisters, lovers, and/or whores.
Terribly, a lot of the young women in my class LOVED this…all year they LOVED being nurses, mothers, sisters, lovers, and ESPECIALLY sluts…MOST especially stripper/sluts.
Again, not all the women. But a lot of them.
My D-level instructor, in class, asked me after a scene what I thought about the scene. I had mentioned that while I realize that these suggestions will come up — possibly disproportionately — from audiences, I encouraged my classmates to let me (and the other women) try to play the surgeon or the HUSBAND or, you know, a lawyer, salesperson, or President.
The teacher started nodding (I love him, by the way)…and I did see the men squirming in class. I had tried to say it in such a way as to make it sound like “Ok, I think I’ve found as much funny as I can — for me — in these scenarios…I’m ready to try something new! Please! My fault, not yours.” Until the other women in class saw this as some sort of weird opportunity to bond with the boys, the talented boys who owned film and editing equipment. “I don’t mind!” “You can all suggest it for me as much as you want!” “Playing a slut can be funny!”
Yes, yes it can. But when that’s all I get to do (other than play a mother) for three hours a week, for 10 months, I want something else. A couple of women remained silent and told me after class that they appreciated what I said. One of the two said she didn’t want to get upset in class so she stayed quiet. The other said she didn’t care enough to change it.
The need to be liked and accepted is, of course, natural. Ingrained in us. The talented young men were indeed talented, exceptionally so. Three of the four were much less than honest early on, though, when they said they’d never ever done improv before the first class. At one of the ‘filming’ sessions (I only went to two), three confessed to having done improv in college (one won all sorts of awards) and one of those three had also done improv in high school. That put me off-tilt quite a bit. I asked why they’d not said anything. I didn’t get a response.
I have nothing against people with experience in a class for amateurs. My first pre-preggo go around in improv had about 1/3 of the class with prior experience. They told us that day one, and it’s not like it brought anything negative to the group. In fact, it gave a lot of us confidence.
I stopped going to the filming sessions for three reasons: 1. I had no input on the increasingly silly scripts 2. The self-appointed director (he owned the camera) used to scream at me to “motivate” me. It was humiliating. He told me that he got my best work when he made me upset. 3. The four talented men started “plotting” about class.
Number three, believe it or not, was the main reason I left. They spent a lot of time between shots and script “revisions” taking apart my classmates, analyzing their improv, and deciding how talented my classmates were (or were not). Then they started avoiding working with these classmates all together. There was a strong undercurrent of “haves” and “have-nots” — talent being the thing had. Or had not. One of the four, a gentle soul who wanted to work with good, talented people (don’t we all?) tried to convince us and himself that he “wanted to find ways to help” these other classmates.
I will always regret not speaking up more. Not pointing them to the passages in the gazillion books on improv I’d read that stated “If you want to work with brilliant people treat your scene partner like s/he is brilliant.”
I seemed to waver between the two groups, according to these men. They didn’t like working with me in class if I’d screwed up a scene. I know that their preferences, their judgements, were tainting the class…even if unspoken. I started stressing out that I *couldn’t* screw up because the effect started to be that the four or five labeled “untalented” — who were, indeed, less trained in theater, less book-smart, and in one case, had been hospitalized/medicated for a host of psychological distresses — only started to work with me. THese other four people, who were admittedly trickier for me to work with, started jumping up to work with me. My scenes started falling into patterns and I wasn’t growing as much as I would have had the whole class had more of a “mix-it-up” kind of feel.
Instead, the shitty hacks, like me worked together and the talented no-experienced savants worked together. They had fun. I felt I was being caught between my own quote and my own lack of skills. Also, if you remember I wrote about the one classmate whose goal it was to make me cry? He *loved* working with me. He met his goal mid-November, if I recall correctly. Fortunately, I made it to the bathroom…the third-floor, door-never-closes, reeking of pink soap Piper’s Alley bathroom. Good times.
I overheard conversations about myself mid-D level, during break when the instructor would leave and pee or text or wonder what happened to his career that he was stuck working with such unfunny shits or whatever instructors do during break. I suddenly was unfunny. I suddenly was not a strong actress “Don’t know what x y and z instructors think is so great about her acting” or that acting was one thing, but this was improv class. I sucked. Must be because of my kids. They “felt bad.” That was always the failsafe, “I care” shield. “I feel so bad for [classmate]. How can we help [classmate] be better?” Be better was, of course, code for “like us.”
I had made the fatal mistake of mentioning I am a mother. I have spoken with other mommies in the arts, and most say they never mention it. I see why.
Tomorrow, more of the story…