Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Had to Choke to Get Woke

This was taken mere minutes before choking on stage
~~

"And lastly... can we get.... Sheevani down please..."

I tried to keep my surprise invisible as I took the four steps to the edge of the stage alongside two of my cast mates. Was I that bad tonight? I was certainly off my game, but I thought I held it together pretty well. I had to push my inner monologue to the back of my brain as the awareness of hundreds of eyes on me came into focus.

The harshness of the spotlight mirrored the harshness of the situation. I listened to my critique while nodding at each statement about why I was chosen to be standing in that spot. None of it was wrong, all of it was fair.

In true reality show fashion, the pause before revealing the eliminated contestant seemed to last about 28 seconds. At last, a name was called and it wasn't mine. The simultaneous relief for myself and sadness for my departing cast mate consumed me and I walked back to the rest of my fellow improvisors.

Opening night was over and instead of a star, I felt like Denver's Next Improv Sham.

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I'm unpredictable under pressure. How I wish I was one of those people who always thrives under the weight of competition, but my track record is pockmarked with a handful of chokes that frustrate me beyond belief. Nothing feels better than succeeding under those circumstances, and while I've had a good amount of those triumphs as well, they tend to fade under the glare of my failures.

I'm currently competing in a show called, "Denver's Next Improv Star," where improvisors are challenged and judged on various improv skills and someone gets eliminated each week. As told in the introductory story, I barely made it to week two and my mind has been on analytic overdrive trying to figure out how to quiet the negativity in my brain in order to regain my confidence.

Expectations and Excuses
Human nature is to defend ourselves against criticism with excuses. At least, that's what I'm telling myself because I mentally listed about 25 of them after leaving the theater last Saturday. I knew the healthy thing would have been to take deep breaths, let it go and be thankful I had survived to redeem myself the following week. Instead, I cried for 2 hours on the drive back to the mountains. Oh yeah, because I was technically in the middle of a vacation with my family that was planned far before I knew this show would be opening on the same weekend. That day had started at 5am and was filled with packing, driving, coordinating, bundling up my children, carrying ski gear for 3 hours because apparently my kids couldn't do it, comforting cold kids, trying to negotiate my way in skis for the first time while helping my kids negotiate skis for the first time and then driving white-knuckled through snow squalls down a mountain in order to get to the show on time. Whew.

So yeah, those were my excuses. I was exhausted. The stress of that day wore down my instincts. I hadn't eaten a proper meal since breakfast... and so on and so on. The problem is, none of that matters to anyone involved in the show. All that mattered was what I brought to that stage. Even while we were warming up, I could feel something was off. I was trying my hardest to rally, but it only led to a weird forced energy that was trying to slam the door on the fatigue that was trying to push through. My nerves were overwhelming and I felt that if I stopped moving, I'd lose my energy. My body was saying, "Yeah... yeah... you got this! You GOT this!" while my mind was saying, "Oh man... you're gonna go on stage TONIGHT? Yikes."

More than anything, I felt incredibly embarrassed about being in the bottom three. When it comes to performing comedy, I expect a lot from myself. For the past 7 years, this has been the chosen path to which I have dedicated so much of my time and energy because... well, I'm not that good at anything else. Just ask any of my former bosses at my corporate jobs, they would agree. Not to mention it's my lifelong dream to be successful in this field. No biggie. The stage could be the size of a postage stamp with 2 people in the audience, it doesn't matter to me. Making people laugh has always been my passion and well, I don't give myself a lot of leeway to screw that up. I was pissed at myself and myself only as I walked out of that theater on Saturday.

Rookie Mistakes
The term "choke" is so perfect. Much like the actual physical act, there is a panic in your body and mind that's impossible to correct once it's happening. While it may have not been obvious to the audience, there was a panicky edge to my performance that I could not shut off. It was as if all my training jumbled into a knot and the bits that were coming loose somehow translated backwards in my brain. At the same time, the awareness of the judges, my scene partner(s), limited amount of time, etc, was banging on the walls... I could feel it all at once while trying to maintain the integrity of the scene.

One of my favorite things about improv comedy is the tenet of "yes, and." It's a support mechanism where by your actions in a scene will be honored by your scene partner(s), no matter what. Thanks to my incredible cast mates, my flaws from that night were supported by the people on stage with me. One of the main things I was upset about was how I probably failed as an effective scene partner. I didn't sabotage or deny anyone, but I didn't do much to help them find their own footing. In my heightened state of panic, I was dictating the scenes without allowing for their own choices to be heard. Tsk tsk tsk.

Oh Yeah... I Don't Suck
The disappointment of that night lingered for a few days, I can't deny it. The rest of the trip with my family was fun, but the nagging debrief about every detail of my performance tugged at me. If you haven't guessed, I'm a pretty emotional person and I found myself doubting everything about my abilities and even if I should be an improvisor at all.

Then I kicked myself in the ass. Shut up, Sheevani. It was an off night. Every damn person has an off night, day, hour, afternoon, week, month, year, whatever. Last I checked, there's blood running through my veins and I'm a human being. I'm choosing to focus on this one show versus numerous shows where I didn't choke. As my friend said when I tearfully returned to his cabin in the mountains, "I've never seen someone so bummed about advancing!" His bourbon-induced statement rang in my ears and got louder as the doubts got quieter. I did advance. I had a shitty night. And next time I could crush it. Or I could do well enough to be safe in the middle. Or, hell, I could be in the bottom again. No matter what, I won't allow myself to doubt my talent. Not only do I owe it to myself, but I owe it to the cast of talented folks who I care so much about.

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A few weeks ago, I heard an interview with D'Arcy Carden, an actress who stars in "The Good Place," on NBC. She is one of the funniest actresses on the scene today and I admire her a great deal. In this interview she told a story about performing at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, which is an improv and sketch theater in New York City. It was her first time on stage with the "heavy hitters," or MainStage cast who she idolized. Ensconced in nerves, she dropped a really vulgar joke early on in the set just to get a laugh. As we improvisors know, trying to be funny or going for the easy joke is a one-way ticket to crickets. That night, she cried herself to sleep at her mistake and thought her career in improv was over. As she told this story, I knew exactly how she felt and why she felt that way. When you love an art form so much, the disappointment of failing at it is very intense. Her story helped me so much these past few days... hell, if the brilliant D'Arcy Carden f*cked up on stage, maybe I'm allowed to as well.

The fastest way to get over a sh*tty show is to get back on that stage and try again... and that's exactly what I'm going to do.

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