How Improv Helped Me Find My Own Character

A lost job, a lost relationship, and the class that pulled me through
EMILY NASH ILLUSTRATION

WET WILLIE'S isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when you’re thinking of doing some soul-searching. The bar at the Music Factory, known for its frozen liquor drinks and part of a chain that started in Savannah in 1990, carries a tourist vibe and feels a lot more Margaritaville than Greenwich Village. 

In the back, though, in a room that could just as easily be used for meetings and private parties, a group of people did more for me than any medication, self-help book, or years of therapy could. 

I have a bad habit of apologizing—incessantly—any time I screw up. I often question whether I deserve happiness. And I place unrealistic expectations on myself in my personal relationships, my writing, and my interactions with coworkers. As a result, I perceive my daily life through a funhouse mirror. An example: In my first official work evaluation out of school, for a job as a “creative specialist” at a jewelry company, my boss went on and on about how I was affable, a good employee, creative, and a hard worker. But there was also a short sentence about how I could take initiative more often and be more vocal in meetings. After I read that, all the positive words blurred and the criticism became more bold. That was the only thing I saw. 

At a house party in the winter of 2014, a few months after I moved to Charlotte from Cleveland, a man I’d just met got to talking about the Charlotte Comedy Theater and an improv class he recently finished taking. I’ve always been fascinated by comedy, and I’ve wondered what it would be like to learn improv, but I never got up the nerve to attend a class. That idea sat on my growing to-do list, falling behind simple chores and the constant need to prove myself at work. As a young college football writer at Sports Illustrated, I often felt I didn’t earn the job, and always felt I had to work twice as hard to prove I belonged.

Then, in January 2015, I got laid off.

Remember that funhouse mirror thing? Yeah, it got a whole lot worse. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell my girlfriend at the time. I was embarrassed. We lived together, and both worked from home, but our relationship was tested almost from the day I started that job. I worked all the time, often seven days a week. I took calls and answered emails well after most people had gone to bed, and I pushed little things like vacuuming or making dinner into the background. On a rare day off, we went to a HomeGoods to look for some finishing touches to the house we were renting. Just as we were about to decide on items for my office, I left her in the middle of a conversation to conduct an interview with a player in the parking lot. 

Being a sportswriter wasn’t just a profession. It was my identity. I’m 29, part of a generation in which the idea of a work-life balance seems lost, the flow between the two more fluid than it was with our parents, who blocked out eight hours a day, five days a week. I was raised to believe the world didn’t revolve around me, and I believed that, so I made my world revolve around my profession. And I was lucky, right? I had my dream job. When that luck ran out, I considered myself a failure. Those close to me corrected me when I said I was fired: “You weren’t fired; you were laid off.” But to me, they were the same thing. I didn’t do enough to keep the job. All the work I’d done didn’t matter. 

I took a week off to travel North Carolina for a beer and barbecue tour in the middle of February 2015, a few weeks after I got laid off. I hit breweries and restaurants for five days straight, taking time for myself for the first time in nearly two years. The trip took me to Wilmington, where I had met my girlfriend, and where I’d been a freelancer for the sports section of the newspaper, the Star-News. We’d moved from there to Cleveland together, and then to Charlotte together. 

I pulled into Wilmington for this visit alone, though, and I called to check in with her while parked outside a friend’s house. That’s when she told me she didn’t see a future with me anymore. I couldn’t blame her. I didn’t see a future with me, either. 

***

FOLKS HAVE a habit of saying something along the lines of, “I’m not brave enough for improv,” which is ironic considering it took me losing all the courage I had to finally send an email to Keli Semelsberger, CCT’s founder, and ask if I could join the next class. 

Semelsberger lived in Chicago in the 1990s and studied improv there under such legendary teachers as Del Close. She even practiced in her apartment with Amy Poehler, long before Poehler appeared on Saturday Night Live or Parks and Recreation. She first got into the activity as a way to get better at her job as a corporate trainer, and it hooked her. She moved to the Charlotte area in 2000 and started teaching classes and building a theater. That evolved into the CCT, which puts on shows most Friday and Saturday nights. 

In that first email, she told me the upcoming class was at capacity but added, “There are always people that register that chicken out last minute.” She said I should come out anyway. I waffled, trying to think of excuses not to go, but I didn’t have any. On the evening of my first class in the spring of 2015, I reluctantly walked through the doors of that back room a couple of minutes early. I sat there, alone, taking sips from a water bottle I had brought with me.

People began to fill the room. They were old and young, black and white, and all as nervous as I was. We made small talk, spreading out on the faux leather chairs and couches typically reserved for the audience on performance nights. We asked each other how long we’d been in Charlotte, what part of town we lived in, if we’d ever taken an improv class or done anything like this before. Before we began, Semelsberger had all of us get in a circle and say our names, but not where we worked. 

“You are not your job,” she said, “and your job doesn’t matter here.”

Finally the guilt I carried—from losing a job, from losing a girlfriend—fell off, at least right then. We did some breathing exercises and warmups to try to get out of our own world and into the world of improv, and although people still seemed scared or tentative, everyone started to buy in.

Modern improv as we know it—in which comedians build scenes around words shouted from the audience, have impromptu rap battles, or engage in competition loosely based on Whose Line Is It Anyway?—wasn’t always about comedy. It was more about games. Viola Spolin worked with underprivileged children in Chicago during the 1930s and ’40s, and stressed social development and leadership skills at an early age. As a way to get kids excited and invested, she led improvisational activities with them, eventually resulting in what she called “Theater Games.” She later took her method to train actors in many professional companies and theaters, and even helped her son, Paul Sills, establish the now-famous Second City in the 1960s. 

She once said of improv, “Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves.”

In one class exercise, Semelsberger told us we were all supposed to form one big monster. Each of us worked together to make the monster—some sort of slow-crawling dragon with about eight arms and three mouths. We were trying to develop the group mind: an intuitive situation in which each of us kind of sensed what the rest of us wanted to do. Semelsberger told us that group mind is where the magic happens in improv.  

Then a member of our team froze. She just couldn’t get in sync with the rest of us. She was overly apologetic (much like I am), and put her head in her hands. Semelsberger stopped and used it as an opportunity to teach.

“Let it go,” she said. “Mistakes don’t matter. If you keep thinking about what you did wrong, it’ll affect the next scene. If you move on, you can build something great. This is a safe space, and it’s just us in this room.”

It was exactly what I needed to hear. When the class was over, I felt lighter. I walked a little taller. I smiled a little more. None of my problems suddenly disappeared, and I was still just as big a mess as I was when I got there a few hours earlier, but I had a better way to work through my feelings than screaming as loud as I could and hitting the steering wheel by myself, or worse, by drinking to black out so I didn’t have to think at all.

***

I DECIDED to go back after that first class. When I wasn’t worrying about my future or trying to figure out which city I’d be staying in for weeks at a time, I kept going to improv. Level I (beginner) gave way to Level II (developing a full story arc), and Level II to Level III (longform). Advanced classes focused on scene building and we kept pushing our characters to a place in which they had backstories and interpersonal relationships. Some of our scenes lasted well over 20 minutes. 

In late February, just a couple days after that phone call in Wilmington, I started my new job as a senior writer for UPROXX, a pop culture website that had recently started a sports vertical. My girlfriend and I went on a break, and then stayed together for appearances at weddings we’d already agreed to attend. The damage was already done. Her mind was made up, and she had every right to feel that way. A couple of months later, it was officially over. Our lease was running out at the end of July, and she decided to move to Carrboro. In the past, I’d wallow and blame myself. I’d accept it as fate, and tell myself I deserved this. 

Something was different this time, though. On Thursdays and Sundays at improv, I stepped into another world. A world of my own making. I could act like a fool in front of complete strangers. I could fake accents (badly). I could even pretend to be the President of the United States during an apocalyptic scenario in which the only future currency is meth. If I could do that, I could handle life.

Months later, my therapist talked to me about living in the moment and trying to avoid my obsession with the past or the future. I was missing so much of life worrying about the decisions I’d already made, or those things that were still to come. By focusing on how people felt about me, or how they’d react to what I was doing, I was never growing. I was stuck in malaise. 

In the “Yes, and” version of improv, an approach that demands you agree with any premise, no matter how absurd, offered up by your fellow performers, anything that is handed to you can be a gift. It’s just a matter of how you use it. The gifts I was given in my life weren’t the best ones, but now I use them to try and get better. I say yes to things now, and I ask for forgiveness instead of permission.

Oh, and when that lease ran out, I didn’t just find another place to rent or run away to another city. I bought a house. I made Charlotte home.

***

WORK GOT BUSY, and I found myself traveling a lot more with the new job. I stopped going to classes in April of that year, and never did get to the performing stage. But the tenets of improv still follow me. 

Losing my job helped me obsess less about making my superiors happy and focus more on being OK with my own work, and I ultimately grew as a writer. Losing my girlfriend forced me to take a look at who I really was and wanted to be. I was always vocal about my insecurities, and it weighed heavily on my close friends and my immediate family. I can’t imagine how much pain that caused them. I’m not perfect, and the past still keeps me up at night and occupies more space in my brain than I want it to, but those experiences already happened. The ones that come next are up to me.  

One of the great things about my new job is that it sometimes gives me the opportunity to talk to comedians. Whenever I can, I ask them what improv has taught them. JB Smoove (Uncle Leon from Curb Your Enthusiasm) told me, “improv is just as much a balance between listening as it is speaking,” and stressed how critical it is to take that into your life. Ben Schwartz (Parks and Rec’s Jean-Ralphio) preached the importance of living for today, and said taking time to relax helps you get closer to your goals than working nonstop. Even if I’m not actively taking classes, I still learn from improv. One thing’s for sure: I know I carry some of that “Yes, and” mindset into my life’s next scene. 

In her book Yes Please, Poehler, the now-famous comedian who helped teach the craft to the woman who taught me improv, discusses coming up through the improv community and her days with the Upright Citizens Brigade. There’s a lot of frank discussion about her life, and plenty of lessons applicable to anyone. 

One section stands out to me. It comes at a point in the book where she tells a story about performing in an SNL skit that had been offensive, and she had been called out on it in a letter from actor Chris Cooper and his wife Marianne Leone. Her first response was to get mad, and as she points out, “anger and embarrassment are often neighbors.” 

It took her years to finally say she was sorry for the mistake, and she writes, “Your brain is not your friend when you need to apologize.” 

I’d been apologizing all my life, but it took a few classes in improv to realize I hadn’t been apologizing to the right person. 

Martin Rickman is still apologizing too much, but he’s working on it. You can find him making bad jokes at UPROXX, or in person at a watering hole somewhere. He hasn’t kicked the emailing after work habit, so feel free to say hello at rickman.martin@gmail.com.


This article appears in the June 2016 issue of Charlotte Magazine

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