Making It Up

When I got to high school I noticed that there were only two groups of people having sex, the popular kids and the theater kids, and since I knew I wasn’t going to be one of the popular kids anytime soon, I decided to start doing theater. I wasn’t a particularly gifted actor, but I had the minimum skills necessary to start landing parts: the ability to memorize and deliver lines accurately, a willingness to embarrass myself on stage, and, most importantly, an unquenchable thirst for attention.

At the top of the food chain in my high school’s theater world were a set of seniors who all had cars and sold weed to each other and threw huge cast parties when their parents were out of town. A few of them took me under their wing when I ended up as the only freshman in one of their shows, and I hungered desperately for their approval even as I secretly resented the way they treated me like the little kid I was. Even though we’re effectively peers now, and even though I probably wouldn’t recognize some of them if I passed them in the street, they remain intimidating in my memory, forever so much older and wiser and cooler than me.

And the coolest—in my eyes, at least—were the improv kids. I attended their show as a freshman and was impressed and envious in equal measure, enchanted by their ability to spout invented lines that were actually funny. These days, of course, it’s hard to think about improv without also thinking about its less-than-stellar cultural connotations, of the ways that, like a capella, it’s often shorthand for “that thing your annoying friend does that you have to suffer through out of bitter obligation.”

But back then, before I was aware of any of that, that first show was revelatory. High school theater contains a double layer of artifice that tinges even serious shows with a drop of the absurd: not just actors pretending to be characters, but kids pretending to be adults. With improv, though, the absurdity was the point. The improv crew lacked the overwhelming self-seriousness that defined the most obnoxious of the other theater kids—the knockoff method techniques, the insistent use of the British spelling of “theatre,” the implicit belief that our slightly-above-average school plays were capital-A Art. The improv kids didn’t take any of this too seriously, and in doing so, they produced the most compelling show I’d seen. I immediately knew I had to become one of them.

Even today, now that I haven’t seen an improv show in a decade or performed in one in even longer, I still believe there’s a way in which improv’s impermanence makes it the purest art form. Improv can’t be saved or shared or repeated or revised; it leaves behind no legacy other than the audience’s memories. For a medium often full of fart and dick jokes, improv is surprisingly Buddhist. Every show is like that Banksy painting that shredded itself.

But unlike most other Buddhist rituals, improv is really fun to do. The thing that makes the form so delightful for its participants is actually the same thing that often makes it so excruciating to watch: its emphasis on the performers’, rather than the audiences’, enjoyment. And yet it couldn’t be any other way, because doing improv well requires entering a kind of flow state that you can only achieve if you’re genuinely having a good time. You can be in a bad mood and still do a passable job acting in a play or playing in a band, but I don’t believe you can be in a bad mood and still perform good improv.

Entering that flow state also requires a certain kind of mind meld with your castmates, and since you can’t rehearse an improv show in the traditional sense, much of our “rehearsals” consisted of finding different ways to engender that connection with each other. Sometimes we’d do it through theater games or practice scenes, but often we’d stop improvising entirely and simply try to get to know each other as quickly and as deeply as we could. We’d poke and prod into each others’ lives the way all teenagers do in party games, but since we believed these interpersonal excavations were necessary for our art, they took on an air of the sacred. Our version of “hot seat,” in which the chosen participant would spend 45 minutes answering, with painful honesty, the most personal questions the rest of us could think of, became an almost cult-like ritual: we’d each eagerly await our turn to share the intimate details of our parents’ divorces, our eating disorders, our losses of virginity, our shame at not having lost our virginity yet.

And on stage, when you fully snapped into that flow state, there was nothing else like it. From the outside improv can look like it’s all about thinking super fast, but on the inside, when it’s really working, it doesn’t feel like thinking at all. Your mind shuts off completely and you watch in amazement as the right things to say and do emanate from somewhere deep and unknown within you. You’re not even creating, really—you’re channeling. When it’s really clicking, you’re as much of a witness to your own performance as the audience is.

I spent the rest of high school chasing that feeling. Improv defined my life more than anything else, except perhaps my various crushes. And then, without any warning, I lost my taste for it completely.

It happened the same way Hemingway said you go bankrupt: gradually, and then suddenly. When I got to college I wasn’t sure who I should be there, and so at first I tried the obvious path of simply being the same person I’d been in high school. I tried out for an improv troupe and didn’t get more than halfway through the audition before something started to feel wrong. I didn’t know what I wanted to be doing, but whatever it was, it wasn’t this. I was out of there before the audition was over, mumbling some excuse about not feeling well.

I still don’t understand exactly what changed. Maybe I started to find something distasteful about the idea of being pigeonholed as a comedy person; I was anxious and insecure and wanted to be taken seriously. Maybe I was afraid of being rejected by a group I didn’t even think was that good. Or maybe it was because I’d been drawn to improv in the first place for reasons that weren’t really about the art form itself, and once those were stripped away, there wasn’t enough left for me to hold onto.

I still think the skills I picked up doing improv were the most useful things I learned in my entire 17 years of school. The ability to think on your feet, to read other people, to pretend, at least temporarily, to be someone you’re not—these are powers I’ve continued to draw on almost daily.

But on the rare occasions I do watch improv now—like the incredible Middleditch & Schwartz Netflix specials—it feels like running into an ex. I remember all the reasons I once loved them. There’s a part of me that wishes I’d never let them go, and for a moment, if I squint, it’s almost like I never did. But then I remember that they’re a stranger now, and that the person I was back then is a stranger too. And I accept that not everything beautiful is meant to last. Which, after all, is another thing I learned from improv.

Yours in knowing there are probably some people from my high school reading this who are angrily insisting that despite not being in the popular crowd or the theater crowd, they still had sex,