Don’t Think Twice and the Power of Improvising through the Unknown

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Sunday, January 10, 2016: sometime in the night, while the neighborhood was quiet, someone smashed a bunch of car windows, my driver’s side window included. They hit up dozens of cars across multiple streets, with no motive for which cars were targeted and which ones were spared. My younger self would have had a meltdown, complete with tears, phone calls to my parents, and anxiety over the destruction of my personal property. In my early twenties, it would have ruined a Sunday for sure. Instead, a decade later, I shrugged and called my insurance company. The damage was already done. They didn’t take anything. Another neighbor had already called the cops and I gave my statement. It was annoying more than anything else. The calm acceptance over which I have no control is still new to me. My gut reaction for so long was rage. This resignation is much better on my blood pressure.

I saw Don’t Think Twice eight months later to the day. I’m not normally very good at remembering dates, but I remember this one because after the movie was over, I scrolled through my phone to see what I was doing exactly eight months before. That’s the time jump at the end of the film: eight months. Eight months is enough time to move, switch jobs, break up, and yet still feel like everything has stayed the same. Enough time for things to change but not too drastically to notice.

Don’t Think Twice opened in Pittsburgh much later than it did in other parts of the country. All summer, it went from New York and LA to Austin, Philly, Seattle, to other smaller, second-tier cities (no offense intended, Hartford, Connecticut). But not Pittsburgh. Our weird pocket where Appalachia meets the Midwest tends to get overlooked, and anticipation for the film grew through local social media. No one was more excited to see it than local improv nerds. I should know. I used to be one.

For the non-improv nerds, Don’t Think Twice is Mike Birbiglia’s film about a New York ensemble called The Commune. The teammates have been performing together for years, with the rapport of friends who have seen each other through the hopeful ambitions of their twenties to the stark realities of their thirties. They’re all working crappy jobs, performing to packed shows, and critiquing Weekend Live, the movie’s Saturday Night Live knockoff sketch show. When two members, Jack and Sam (Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs), are offered auditions on Weekend Live, it shakes the entire group to its core, causing everyone to question their abilities, their place in life, and what the future holds for each of them. The improv scene in New York is obviously much more different than it is here— there’s no pipeline from Pittsburgh to SNL. Zero possibility for stardom means the stage time competition is friendly. Most teammates are pals, or at least have good camaraderie. But as with every group of people, conflicts can surface. And even without talent scouts in the audience, jealousy and insecurity can sneak in and tear a team apart, just like it did in the film.

I had wanted to try improv years before I ever did. The desire felt like an embarrassing secret, the kind of thing that revealed too much about me from a self-consciousness that I’d yet to shake. I told myself I had stopped performing on stages years ago. I tried to focus on writing instead, but it wasn’t going well. I was spending too much time in my head and not enough time putting words on the page. When someone posted on Facebook that they were taking improv classes, my first reaction was disappointment. “I wish I could do that” was followed immediately by “Wait, why not?” It’s a little extraordinary when you realize that you’re the one getting in your own way.

Don’t Think Twice launches with the sounds of a stage manager scraping chairs across a wooden floor to prepare for a show. Voiceovers from the main cast warming up for a show, go into the rules of improv: 1) Say yes. Agreement is the basic building block to an improv scene. Saying no, directly or not, shuts down a scene before it even begins. 2) It’s all about the group. The group is the heart and soul, the lungs and brain, the hands and feet, all parts working together to create a functioning body made of multiple people. It’s not about one player standing out above the rest. 3) Don’t think. Improv should be about reactions, not thoughts. Thinking gets in the way of living in the moment and being present. The Commune joke around while they get ready for the show, as comfortable with each other as a worn out pair of sneakers. As one teammate takes on a brief Japanese accent, another says to him, “Remember when you said ‘please tell me when I’m racist’? One of those times.” In other words, these rules can, clearly, be hard to follow sometimes and all of the characters break them in their own ways.

A lot of beginner improv is simply learning to feel comfortable on stage and training the brain not to throw a hissy fit for being voluntarily put in a situation in which one has no control. I had some done acting and public speaking in the past, so I didn’t think improvising would be so hard. It turned out to be one of the most difficult and revealing things I’ve done in my life.

Improv brought out every insecurity I had and then some. My body issues, my obsession with control, my perfectionism, my inability to sit still with the unknown, my need for attention and praise, my ego. I had years of therapy that couldn’t even scratch at the surface of what improv dug up. I had to learn to be aware of how I carried myself while performing. My default stance on stage was to hide, curling my back, crossing my arms. A regular note that I’d receive after shows was to stop putting my hands on my face when I spoke.

“Try to notice what you’re doing with your hands,” one of my coaches said, covering his mouth like I had done. “You’re doing that because you’re unsure of what to say.“ It was true, and I didn’t even know I was doing it.

The more I improvised, the more I wanted to keep improvising, even if I had to wade through a swamp of ugliness to get there. It was the complete opposite of how I treated everything else I ever failed in my youth (quitting softball after one season, ditching community theatre after flubbing a few lines, refusing to participate in another summer of tennis lessons after I was put in a group with kids five years younger than me, half my height, and twice my ability). The vast majority of my improv shows and rehearsals were forgettable, but the few excellent shows are ones that I’ll never forget. I was in a trio for a while with two other women called Skip Little Person. We practiced weekly for months and we never really hit our groove. All of us were still learning how to own the stage and, even among other girls, we were still stepping on each other’s toes. But one night, we were the opener for another group, and somehow it all clicked. We performed a perfect fifteen-minute mono-scene that began with the line, “I think we just drank blood.” Everything escalated from there, like a perfect sitcom episode. We heightened the action, each of our characters building on the other, silly yet grounded in some emotional reality. At the end, we blew the world up, ending on a “button,” a final line to seal the end of the scene: “Ma’am, I think that was wine.” My only regret is that the show wasn’t taped.

The high of performing was addicting. Making the audience laugh in our tiny, black box basement theater was even better. And the people were the best part. It hit me hard watching Don’t Think Twice how much I missed that camaraderie. On their way to the stage, The Commune pay homage to a wooden bear that sits outside the stage door—giving it head pats, kisses, and other acknowledgements before going on stage. Each improv team I was on had our own little rituals too. One team performed weekly and we tried to meet for dinner before every show. Another would perform weird dances as our warm up. It’s these little things that made each team unique.

At one point, I was either rehearsing, performing in shows, or watching friends’ shows seven days a week. After a while, the only way I saw my non-improv pals was if they came to one of my shows. I flooded them with Facebook events and it was a delightful surprise when any of them showed up. Most of the time they didn’t come, and that was okay, because the improv community was there. Our lack of fame in Pittsburgh meant that the only thing we were competing over was stage time.

Like the cast of Don’t Think Twice, our community was made up of kind, brilliant people who were also a little too hungry to keep improvising. Some people were artists in other forms besides performing, like Allison (Kate Micucci); other people lived with their parents while they figured stuff out, like Lindsey (Tami Sagher). Many of us had tried other hobbies before trying comedy, such as Sam, who used to be a dancer. Improvisers who were lawyers gave simple legal advice over beers. I got haircuts and a blue streak in my hair from a hairdresser improviser. The first time I ever saw the Tommy Wiseau masterpiece The Room at a teammate’s house, it took the troupe over five hours to get through it because we kept stopping to act out scenes, rewind parts, and make fun of its absurdity. Another improviser kept Cards Against Humanity in his car, to be played after shows at our local bar, the kind with a dartboard in the corner and free peanuts and popcorn.

In the film, a Commune member named Bill (Chris Gethard) goes through a major personal crisis when his dad is in a motorcycle accident. The Commune drives down and back from New York to Philly with Bill to support him—a level of loyalty and support that resonated for me. A few years ago, I lived with a fellow improviser and our house was burglarized one afternoon when we weren’t home. My MacBook was stolen and sold to a pawn shop. The police tracked down the culprit and found my computer exactly as I left it, which I believe makes me the luckiest unlucky person alive. In order to get the laptop back, I had to buy it from the pawn shop, something that seems ridiculous even years later. My old improv teammate got other improvisers to chip in to help me pay for it without me even knowing about it. For my roommate, whose every piece of jewelry was never recovered, my teammate asked the community if they could give some of their own. Offstage, it just as we said before every show: “Got your back, got your back, got your back.”

But insecurities still swirled around my brain, and revealed themselves at some point. I wanted to be funny more than anything—emphasis on “I”—though I wouldn’t have admitted it then. I might have said I was “team first,” but my subconscious wanted to make sure I was funny first. I’d steamroll meeker team members, mostly other women. I’d stay on the back wall as my teammates were sinking in a scene because I didn’t want to look like an idiot if I said the wrong thing. It was a continuation of every self-doubt I’d had since childhood, with humor as a form of survival. I was always The Funny One, except now I was in a room with other people who wanted to be that exact same thing. And to make it worse, these were some of the nicest people I knew. My desire to entertain was selfish, a way for ego to lead me astray. Maybe if I was more self-aware, I could have worked through this on my own before getting on stage. Instead, I was concerned with how often I stepped from the sidelines and into the center of any performance.

On my way to a show or rehearsal, I would think up different scenarios that would make funny opening lines. Maybe if I say, “Great pickles, Leslie!” and then someone will say, “Hey, thanks! I grew it myself!” and then we can go to a pickle farm. It was plan-prov, the complete opposite of improvisation. It was thinking, not reacting. My need for control was so strong that in my head I abandoned the basic rules of what constituted the art form in the first place. I wanted scenes to go well so badly that I was willing to betray the beauty of spontaneity and collaboration. It was a battle between my fear of uncertainty and my love of surprise at what my teammate and I would build together.

Of course, my little plans never worked out. No one has any idea of what another person is going to say or do, especially with the stress of being in front of strangers. Guessing what was going to happen next was fruitless. The attempt got me in my head and mucked up my ability to listen closely and follow where the scene was going. Instead of taking a deep breath before diving in, I sputtered, choking and gasping for air. Grasping for control is like trying to capture all the oxygen in the room with a handful of garbage bags. You’re never going to accomplish it and you’ll look like a fool in the process.

Of all the characters in Don’t Think Twice, the one I most see myself in is Miles, the cocky ringleader of the group, played by Birbiglia. Not because I was as good as he claimed to be (I’ve never been thisclose to getting on a TV sketch show), but because of his ego problem. I mentioned this to a couple friends and they objected, probably not wanting to think of me as an asshole. But I know the truth. Like Miles, I was in it for the wrong reasons after a while, making it more about myself than about the team.

“This is us in 1997,” he says to a young improv ingenue he’s trying to impress, showing her one of his class photos in the theater hallway and pointing out various classmates. “Isn’t that guy on Weekend Live now?” she asks. “Yeah, he’s gone on to do well,” Miles admits, reluctance in his voice at having to acknowledge someone else’s success and not his own. Later at a party, he tells her, “You know, I was Jack’s level one instructor.” There’s a pause before she gets it. “Wait, you’re my level one teacher?” she says, revealing her own ambition. She later leaves him in his lofted college dorm-like bed, mumbling on her way out that he’s “like forty.” “I just turned thirty-six,” he says to himself, the sting visible on his face.

Miles brags to anyone who will listen about his failed audition years ago for Weekend Live as a badge of honor, something he has that the others don’t. “You know, I was thisclose to getting the show in 2003,” he says, holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. Miles is content with his possibility of fame so long as he is able to hold onto the illusion that he is the most talented in the group. He can’t stand it when his teammates Jack and Sam get their own chance for the spotlight. As a performer, Miles wasn’t able to put his ego aside. After a while, neither could I.

“You can’t do improv forever, okay?” Jack says to his girlfriend Sam after she confesses to blowing off her Weekend Live audition. “It just… ends. I don’t want to end either, but it will, it just will. You have to jump to the next lily pad.” It’s true. It does just end, at least for me.

Those who know I used to perform ask me about shows every once in awhile and I shrug, telling them I’ll let them know of the next one. I don’t want to say that I’m a past-tense improviser, but that’s the most honest answer. I improvised regularly for about three years and slowly drifted away. Three years is minuscule compared to the truly dedicated. There are people who were starting out as I was quitting who are much further than I got. It wasn’t a definite decision at the time, which is why it took so long for me to leave. I still performed occasionally on pick-up teams for one-off shows. Then my regular teams broke up and I didn’t seek out new ones. Many of the improvisers I started with moved away. The community changed, new theaters opened, and I wasn’t part of it.

The truth is that even though I miss the community, I have no desire to do it again. I think I got all I could from it. I was witty and I could turn out a weird character. Ultimately though, some things are only meant to last as long as they need to, even if it’s only a little while. Performing improv made me a better writer. It helped me learn to weather failure, to throw out as many ideas as possible instead of waiting to be hit with that one stroke of inspiration. Better at eye contact. More confident. More likely to say yes to whatever weirdness life throws my way.

Eight months from September 10 is May 10. I made a note on my calendar to check in with myself this spring and see where I am compared to the fall. I’ve started a new job and I don’t have that car anymore. I’m better now at wrangling with the unknown than I ever was when I improvised. The only way I could get better at this acceptance is through time. For some things in life, we are the pilot, but for many others, we are the passenger, and knowing when we are one or the other is what makes a difference between calm acceptance and pointless rage.

“Your twenties are all about hope and then your thirties are all about realizing how dumb it was to hope.” I groaned the first time I heard that line in the trailer—the truth hit so hard—but now I have disagree. Hope is all we have, especially later in life. The last two months of 2016 were a hard lesson of looking into the blank eyes of the future and accepting whatever stares back with a “Yes, and…”

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Image credits: feature image, image 1, image 2, image 3 © NicoleAntonuccio, image 4, image 5 © Anna Bender.


Andrea Laurion is a writer and performer from Pittsburgh, with essays and humor writing appearing in the Washington Post, The Hairpin, The Billfold, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Neutrons Protons, and The Toast, among others. She's on Twitter, like everyone else: @andrealaurion. More from this author →