Can You be Trusted?
Many improvisors and actors believe that being a great performer means that you have to blindly trust others, even if your gut is telling you not to. This is even encouraged by some teachers and directors. This leads many performers to allow others to encroach on their personal space, be touched in uncomfortable ways, engage in unwanted intimate behavior, or participate in scenes with subject matters that violate their ethics. Some will judge themselves harshly because they find it very difficult to cross certain boundaries and will label themselves uptight, inhibited, untalented, etc. The truth is, being compliant and allowing others to control you does not make you a better performer or more talented. On the contrary, ignoring or judging your feelings and instincts will inhibit you and interfere with your ability to express yourself authentically and fully.
Setting boundaries, trusting your instincts, and upholding your own personal and ethical standards is a healthy thing to do and will ultimately empower you and make you a better performer.
Boundaries do not suppress creativity, they actually encourage it. For example, a basketball player must play by a certain set of rules. What makes him or her a great player is the ingenuity that he or she uses to make a play while still following the rules of the game. Similarly, if performers understand what their boundaries are, they are free to find creative ways to stay within them. Agreeing on boundaries also creates mutual trust and understanding, thereby creating a safe environment in which to express yourself.
Some performers will be judgmental and try to pressure or shame others who are not willing to do anything and everything for their craft. Some will even try to force you into behaviors that you do not wish to engage in. These are the very performers that do not deserve your trust.
More commonly, though, other performers unintentionally violate your personal boundaries. Most people do not want to offend you or make you uncomfortable, they just don’t know how you feel or what you need. Rather than feeling helpless or angry, you can build a trusting relationship if you communicate honestly with others and encourage them to do the same with you.
Trust is Earned
No one automatically deserves your trust. Having a certain level of distrust is healthy and, in the “real” world, it can even save your life. Although it is true that we can all examine our own trust and intimacy issues, take greater risks, work on expressing ourselves more fully and freely, stretch our “comfort zones”, and test our boundaries, it is important that we do it in our own way and in our own time. If we feel safe, we are more likely to take chances and experience personal growth.
For example, I had a wonderful Orthodox Jewish student who was raised in an environment where she did not engage in any physical contact with boys. She wasn’t opposed to it, necessarily, but she wasn’t ready to venture into that territory. She found herself in several improv scenes that made her uncomfortable because they had romantic content or physical contact with male students. She approached me with this issue and I suggested she speak to the class about how she was feeling. I told her that if she made her classmates aware of her boundaries, I was confident that they would respect them. Although she felt a bit uncomfortable about doing this, she went ahead and told the class, and everyone was perfectly willing to respect her boundaries.
In the classes that followed, she very swiftly became more comfortable with the men in the class as together they navigated their improv exercises and scenes within her boundaries. Her scene work improved dramatically and she was much more relaxed on stage. Gradually, she even became physically engaging with them. She would hug them “hello” when class started and “goodbye” when class ended. In her scene work, she began to explore romantic topics as well as many other areas that were uncomfortable for her. Other students in the class marveled at her growth and were always eager to get up and do scenes with her. Her strength of character was an inspiration to others. It was amazing how quickly she blossomed as an improvisor after she took a stand and asked for what she needed.
Being someone who others feel comfortable, open and safe with is actually what makes someone a great improvisor. Most of us have experienced being on stage with someone who we feel totally free and open with. We find ourselves stretching our comfort zones, exploring new territory, tapping into new ideas and opening up emotionally. The reason we feel this way is because they are trustworthy.
What does it take to be trustworthy?
Trustworthy people accept you for what you are and not what they think you should be. They are authentically themselves and acknowledge their own flaws and weaknesses. They inspire you to take risks by setting an example and encouraging you, not by pressuring or shaming you. They respect your personal boundaries without judgment. They validate your feelings and your ideas. They are engaged and connected without being overbearing or manipulative. They are not driven by their egos or self-righteousness but by the desire to play and create. They can accept limitations and learn how to be even more creative and resourceful in order to stay within these limitations.
Trustworthy people are neither passive or aggressive. They step up to the plate and challenge themselves. They will tell you the truth if you do something that they disagree with, but will respect that you have different viewpoints. They can be very outgoing and expressive, or they can be reserved and subdued. What they have in common is that they are honest, authentic, empathetic and accepting of others and themselves.
One of the reasons my student felt safe testing her boundaries was because the other students in the class were trustworthy. They accepted her completely and were willing to play within her bounds. They set an example by crossing those boundaries with other students who were more comfortable with it, and showed that it was safe to play with them. They understood that just because you engage in certain behaviors on stage, it doesn’t give you license to do so off stage. As a result, an atmosphere of trust and free play was created and everyone was able to learn, take risks and grow in their own way and in their own time.
By working on your own trustworthiness, you will find that you become more trusting. Fear of being cajoled into behaviors that violate your personal standards disappears. You develop confidence in your ability to handle whatever you are confronted with. Upholding your ethics and standards becomes more important than your fear of being judged or of having disagreements. You trust your instincts, and make choices accordingly. And sometimes the choice you make is that you do not want to work with a particular person or group.
Most people do not want to violate your trust. We are all carrying emotional baggage around with us and we are all struggling with something. This often affects our behavior and interferes with our ability to effectively relate to others. However, if we are willing to face our fears, interact with honesty and integrity, and respect and accept others, we will create more meaningful relationships which will ultimately be reflected in our improv work.
by Ilene Biderman
My friend Beverly introduced me to Susan's improvisation class. I would never have gone on my own. I had been a member of AEA, AFTRA and SAG many years ago. Susan's improv class gave me the impetus to move forward. I got headshots and a new resume. My first audition out...I got a callback. It was down to four of us. I didn't get the part, but it gave me the confidence to continue. All the excuses ....I had them all....working full time, too tired, too old, too busy, too painful. No more excuses. The physicality and laughter improv inspires is simply informative, freeing and fun!
High on Life
by Harold Smith
Since taking improv classes I notice a feeling of ease in how I go through my day. I feel sharper and more quick witted during the day. I am a personal trainer, and when I am with my clients I am sharper and more alert. When I talk to potenial clients I feel more relaxed and comfortable with them. Its like a feeling of being mentally high. Some of the exercises we do in the improv class seem challenging or just fun but it has a profound affect on me the rest of the week. I keep coming back to get that mental high. I enjoy the class and it has been very good for my spirit and well-being. Susan is great at leading us and it's fantastic group of people in the class.
by Mimi Yasgur
When I began studying improv with Susan, my creativity, spontaneity, and passion re-emerged, and I developed a true sense of joy during what was a difficult time of my life. I was able to reconnect with my self-confidence and centeredness, and over the course of my three years of taking classes, I realized my professional goals: to pursue drama therapy as a career. I experienced personally the cathartic and therapeutic effects that improv had on me, and I wanted to make that modality available to others for healing. I am now studying expressive arts therapies and mental health counseling, all of which stems from the passion that improv ignited in me years ago. I have used many of the exercises I learned in my graduate school classes. For example, I created warm-ups in my classes and internship based on Susan's excellent model.
In addition to professional clarification and motivation, my interactions with others on a regular basis bear fingerprints from my improv studies. "Yes and..." is a powerful way of thinking that creates a partnership with whomever you're talking with. I've quoted this concept countless times, and others find it very eye-opening as well. It's always best to find agreement!
I'm so grateful I had the privilege of studying with Susan. My experience really changed the way I relate to myself and helped me realize my potential in helping others. Thank you, Susan!
**A Note From Susan: Mimi inspires everyone around her. Whoever is lucky enough to have Mimi as a drama therapist will have stumbled upon one of the most compassionate and dedicated people you will ever meet. **
Bringing Humor and Humanity into the Workplace
From nine to five, I work in technology. You can imagine the endless amounts of power points, Visio diagrams, and flow-charts that I have to sit through and sometimes even present. During one project I was working on, I had to present a new application that our team had developed to literally hundreds of people in groups of 15-50 people at a time. Pretty daunting.
At the same time I was working on this project, I was working with Susan's improv troupe, Script Tease. Prior to taking improv classes, I may have stuck more to the program, not wanting to risk being too informal in my presentations. But I found my improv training working its way into my professional presentation style. I noticed that I was able to adapt my presentation style slightly for each group and find ways to hold their attention. Some of the people distinctly did not want to have to sit through yet another presentation of yet another application that they’d have to learn – those were the people I called on, engaging them to answer questions. Kind of like asking the audience for a suggestion!
I began to enjoy the presentations and it seemed to me that the audiences learned something. I even made people laugh sometimes. Getting people to laugh during a technical presentation is as difficult as drawing blood from a stone. In the end, I thought to myself, if they didn’t learn anything at least they were relaxed for 45min to an hour and maybe had a chuckle or two. Finally, I found a way to have fun doing my day job.
Improv is a welcome breath of fresh air and humor that I take to supplement my mundane day to day job in Human Resources.
Going to class after work helps me release the frustrations and anxieties of the day that consume my mental space, in favor of creativity that actually frees my mental space because we cannot plan what we will say or do. As soon as the idea comes in, it's going back out. This forces me to stretch myself in ways that I have not been able to previously, and in ways that are maybe even discouraged in certain professional circumstances. So pushing myself beyond those traditional limitations has made my life richer, more fun and more well-rounded. Also, being pushed by my peers in class to take risks and take them with conviction, has built my confidence in the ability to take on uncomfortable challenges outside of class too.
Here is another piece I wrote and performed at one of Mike Fiorito's Spoken Word events at Vox Pop. I'm sure some of you can relate.
Hot and Bothered
A feeling of warmth overcomes me as I walk through the door of the softly lit restaurant and I see you waiting for me. Smooth jazz drifts through the air. A white table cloth, a bottle of wine and a candle adorn the table where you are sitting. As our eyes meet, my breathing becomes heavier and I struggle to keep my balance.
You smile sweetly and your eyes widen as I approach you. My face becomes completely flushed and my heart begins to flutter. Perspiration drenches my skin as my body temperature rises. Dizzy and breathless, I steady myself as I make my way to the table and slither into the chair across the table from you. Unable to contain myself any longer, I forcefully rip open the top two buttons of my blouse exposing my heaving cleavage to the cool air. I lean on the table as I look you in the eye with mouth agape.
We both know exactly what’s going on here: menopause.
There are many styles of improv out there, and there are lots of opinions and judgements flying around about which form is superior, or true art, or real improv. I’ve seen many improvisors look down their noses at others who are doing a different style of improv than they are. I personally think it’s great that the art form of improvisation has branched out into so many different directions and I believe that all of the forms – long form, short form, musical and the myriad of subgroups within these – have merit and should be respected, even if it’s not your cup of tea. And I applaud improvisors who experiment with new forms or try out forms they haven't done before.
There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind. - Duke Ellington
I’ve seen wonderful and dreadful improv in many forms, and I’ve done dreadful and wonderful improv in many forms. I’ve seen Harolds that were just a series of recycled penis jokes, and I’ve seen Alphabet Scenes that were profound and told a great story, and vice versa. I don’t attribute the quality of a performance with the chosen form. I attribute it to the group dynamic, the skill of the improvisors and serendipity.
So in the words of Rodney King,
“Can’t we all just get along?”
The following piece was written thanks to my very dear friend, fellow performer and muse, Mike Fiorito, who is always a source of inspiration to me. He is the little brother I always wished I had. He organizes comedy, music and spoken word events at various venues, and has always invited me to participate. Though I had never participated in a spoken word event before, he encouraged me to give it a try. So, once again, I said “yes, and...” and I wrote and performed this piece at the now defunct Vox Pop in Brooklyn. I had a lot of fun doing it. I hope you enjoy it!
"Will you get the suitcase out of storage for me?" I ask my husband, Steve, who is sitting in front of his computer bobbling his head as he watches a YouTube video of Van Morrison.
“Sure,” he promises as he continues to bobble.
How can he be having so much fun at a time like this?!? Didn’t he see those little green buds bursting out of the tree branches? Doesn’t he know what this means!?! Spring is here and summer is just around the corner! I’m going to have to come out of hiding and expose my soft arms, ample thighs and German-Irish skin, for Christ’s sake!
So like it’s no big deal, he gets the large black Samsonite suitcase filled with my dreaded summer clothing and plops it down in the hallway. It crouches there like a rabid dog growling at me. Every time I walk past it, I hold my breath and keep my distance knowing that if I get too close, reality will bite me right in my prominent ass.
As the days pass and the temperature escalates, the sun beats down on me and my skin cries out for oxygen as sweat drips like tears down my back. Unable to tolerate the heat anymore I resolve to face the suitcase!
I walk home with determination, clenched fists and a crazed expression on my face. Courage consumes me as I burst through my front door, snarl at the suitcase and wrestle it into the bedroom. I heave it onto the bed, rip it open and, like a leopard attacking its prey, I pounce on a pair of blue denim Levi shorts, rend them from their hiding place under a pile of T-shirts, and hold them up in the air. You will not defeat me!
I peel off my sweat-soaked black jeans and, with one swift move, I hold my breath, step into the shorts, yank them past my thighs, stuff myself into them, and jerk the zipper closed. Phew! They made it! They’re tight, but at least I got them on! Feeling relieved, I remove my long sleeved button down shirt and put on a loose, white, cotton tank top that was cowering in a corner of the suitcase.
Then before I have a chance to burst my own bubble by inspecting myself in the mirror, I hear the key in the front door. Uh oh!
Steve strolls into the bedroom, kisses me and says, “How’s my beautiful wife!”
Grateful that he hasn’t been to the eye doctor in 10 years, I roll my eyes and say, “Fine,” and then I spring the question on him that all men dread.
“Do I look fat?”
A panicked expression washes over Steve’s face as he scans his brain for a response that won’t get him in trouble or deprive him of sex. “You look fantastic!”
What a cop out! Does he really think he’s going to get away with that elusive response?
“Yeah, but do I look fat?!?” I demand.
“No, you don’t look fat.” he sighs.
“Liar!” I growl, as I stomp over to the mirror. He rushes past me and makes a bee line for the living room before I sling another impossible question at him. I look at my reflection and I’m not as horrified as I thought I’d be…but I’ll be damned if I let Steve know that. I stare at myself in the mirror and make up my mind to go outside right now before I lose my nerve.
“Let’s go to the park!” I shout.
“OK!” Steve replies, as he gets up and, without a second thought, he changes into a pair of shorts. What the fuck? It’s just not fair that he’s OK with that!
I make one more attempt to get a straight answer out of him. “How do I look?”
Why do I bother? I’ll never get the truth out of him.
So we head out to Prospect Park, and on the way a dirty old man does a double take as I walk past him which, pathetically, makes me feel more confident. I begin to boogie toward the park singing in my head: ♪ I’m coming out. I want the world to know, got to let it show. ♪
Then suddenly, like crashing into a wall on an open highway, we run into Steve’s pompous friend Jay, a fellow guitar player who always dates skinny women half his age. ♪ I’m coming ou...SHIT! I get my bearings and begin to assess the damage. Well, he didn’t cringe. A victory!
They yammer on and on about guitars (yawn) then, out of nowhere, Jay has the nerve to ask, “You guys want to come to Jones Beach this Saturday?”
What an asshole! This man is obviously trying to humiliate me!
As I begin to hyperventilate, I give Steve the evil eye so that he doesn’t dare say “yes”.
“Yeah. Sure. Sounds fun!” Steve replies.
WHAT?!? I glare at him and scream “I want a divorce!”
I spend a good deal of my time teaching improv, however, I take classes whenever my schedule (and finances) permit. I think it's important to keep my skills up and learn new things, and it's also important to stay aware and sensitive to the feelings and experiences that students have.
When I do take classes, I often feel like I'm two completely different people depending on the environment in the classroom. If the atmosphere is competitive and aggressive, I get nervous or retreat into my shell. If I don't get enough constructive feedback, I feel lost and abandoned. If the teacher doesn't "enforce" the rules of improv, I get frustrated that my offers are being blocked or ignored. And if I don't feel challenged, I become bored and apathetic.
On the other hand, if I feel connected with my fellow students, I become relaxed, friendly and confident. If the teacher is attentive and gives good feedback, I feel empowered. If we are reminded of rules and useful techniques, it makes it easier to collaborate with and trust each other. And if I am being challenged, I am inspired to take risks and push myself harder.
I feel very lucky that my first experience with improv (many moons ago) was with a wonderful teacher, Wendy Dillon, who in addition to really knowing her craft, created a wonderful atmosphere of fun, mutual support, trust and free expression. I was even luckier that she invited me to be part of her performance group and I had her as a director for 5 years. She set the standard for me of what a teacher should be. She truly believed in us and helped us to believe in ourselves.
I learned that if you’re not feeling good about yourself in a class, it doesn’t mean that you’re not good at improv. It is most likely because this is not the right teacher or class for you. Each of us thrives in different environments and under different circumstances, so try not to judge yourself if you feel shut down, anxious or intimidated in a class where others seem to be flourishing.
I don’t mean to say that you should never struggle. It’s not a bad thing to struggle when learning, in fact it can be a good thing because it demonstrates a certain level of commitment to and passion for whatever you are learning. However, you need to feel that you are in a safe and supportive place to work through your struggles.
It’s important to recognize what works for you and then be proactive in seeking a teacher and a class that’s a good fit for you. If you’re not in an environment that taps into your creativity and inspires you, find one that does. Everyone has their own path, so don’t be afraid to forge your own.
I’ve never written a blog before, but when IN wrote me and offered to sponsor my blog for 3 months I figured that, in the spirit of improv, I’ll say “yes, and...”. The instant I said this, ideas started flowing about things I could write about. I felt motivated and excited about the idea of exploring ideas and sharing them with others. I even had a rush of self-confidence and felt that I actually had something important to share, that my life experiences, my knowledge and my perspective might be interesting or inspiring to others. I started typing out some ideas that I could expand on and even started developing a couple of them.
This lasted for a good 30 minutes. Then, the self doubt started to kick in. I worried about coming across as preachy, or arrogant, or boring, or passe, or corny, or unhip, etc. etc. etc. I wondered if I could be as witty, entertaining and wise-cracking as some other bloggers.
I started to feel uncomfortable at the idea of exposing myself to judgment and criticism. I started becoming judgmental and critical myself at the whole idea of blogging as being narcissism and snarkiness at it’s worst. My self-critic just sat on my shoulder and nagged away trying to convince me not to do it.
I think this is why most people don’t follow through with things. We get stuck in the muck and mire of self-criticism and self-judgement. We fear rejection, criticism and judgement from others. We don’t want to deal with the discomfort of doing something that is challenging and new. We'd rather wallow in mediocrity than take a stab at something we are not sure we can be good at it.
Luckily for me, I’ve learned from doing improv that the only way out of it is through it. The worst thing that can happen is that my blog will suck -- and I can survive that. Even if I do suck at it, if I work at it, I can probably become good at it. Or, maybe it’ll be something that I do a couple of times and say, “that was fun, but I’d rather be doing [fill in the blank].”
If I say, “no” I’ll never find out if it’s for me. And if I say “no” I'll never know what other opportunities might arise as a result of writing a blog. I know that when I feel that someone is being honest, authentic and open I can usually relate to them. So, that is my goal as a blogger.
Laura Merrill is a strong comedic actor and writer. She has recently contributed as a writer and performer to "The Beverly Bonner Show" at Broadway Comedy Club, and "In Transit" and "Something Outrageous" at the 45th Street Theater. She has experience in Shakespeare, Chekhov, and scenic design.
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