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Dear Aadyam

How do you overcome nervousness during improv? What should you do if you take off on a tangent during an improv?
– Ishaan Varior, Theatre Lab (Youth) & Little Jasmine Project, Bangalore

Dear Nervous Tangent,

The answer to your question is Reframe, Refocus, and Reincorporate. Let me explain.

In my experience nervousness really has two components to it. There are the physical sensations in your body that you feel when you are nervous and there are the thoughts in your head. The physical sensations take different forms for different people. You might feel your hands get clammy and cold, butterflies in your stomach, jitters, dry mouth, racing heart, etc. The thoughts in your head are often critical or fearful, such as, “you’re gonna mess this up,” “what if I’m not funny?” “Ahhh, I am just too nervous!” When both of these components go full force then it can feel completely overwhelming to attempt anything, much less spontaneous performance. And when you or other people tell you to “relax” it’s about as useful as a bucket would be to empty the ocean. People mean well when they tell you to relax, but it often has the opposite effect. Why? Because without a concrete place to put your focus, you just become more aware that you are NOT RELAXED and this can make you even more nervous. So what is a nervous performer to do?

First of all, you need to REFRAME what the physical sensations in your body mean. The human body has the same chemical reaction for both fear and excitement. Whether you are scared or excited the body creates adrenaline in response. The adrenaline is responsible for the clammy hands, racing heart, butterflies, etc. Adrenaline is not your enemy, though. It is actually a HUGE help when it comes time to perform. Think of it as a special kick of extra energy that helps you be extra witty and spontaneous. It makes sure you are really on your toes. So next time you feel butterflies in your stomach, you need to REFRAME your reaction to them. Rather than let those butterflies be a sign of nervousness, let them be a sign of excitement. Tell yourself, “Oh good, my extra reserves of energy are kicking in!” The extra energy is meant to be channeled into your performance, to help you really shine. When it comes time to perform those butterflies have the power to transform your performance.

Now we understand that the physical sensations are signs that extra energy has come to play, but we still have to deal with the thoughts in our head. Dealing with negative thoughts becomes a focus game. Performers, whether they are musicians, actors, or improv artists must have very strong focus skills. There is no way around this. The ability to focus is a skill and it must be practiced. Like a muscle, it will get stronger the more you train it. So the bad news is that the fearful, critical voice in our heads that tells us we might bomb never goes away. That voice is with us forever. But the good news is that you have the power to choose whether to listen to it or not. You must choose what to focus on. When the fearful voice gets very loud in your head you must REFOCUS your attention.

But what do I focus on you ask? During the performance focus on just listening and responding. Stop thinking about “what do I do?” Let go of the pressure to perform and be funny. Listen and respond. Then comedy will happen naturally. Funny is a consequence, not an intention. Have the intention to listen and accept your partner’s ideas.

Before the performance, focus on moving with ease or focus on your breath. Focus on filling yourself with the energy of pink joyful laughter. You may have to search for what works for you. The key is: do not focus on fearful, nervous thinking. Do not focus on “I have to be funny!” When you focus on fearful thoughts you give them power, and they get louder and stronger. Experienced performers have learned how to keep their focus away from critical thoughts and on what’s really important, and they have learned to welcome those pre-show jitters as a friend giving them extra energy.

Your question about going off on a tangent is also related to Focus. During the performance, focus on the game, your partner, and really listening, so that you don’t go off on a tangent in the first place. But, if you do go off on a tangent, then focus on REINCORPORATION. Reincorporation means bringing elements from what has come before into what you are doing now. So if you can bring back any joke, prop, character, situation, etc from the beginning and incorporate it into the tangent, it may feel less like a tangent, and the audience will love it. Moments of reincorporation are really comedy gold.

So there you have it, Reframe, Refocus, and Reincorporate.
Good luck!

– Kathryn Doshi

About Kathryn Doshi

Kathryn received her MFA in Physical Theatre from Dell Arte International School of Physical Theatre. She studied Improvisation with Keith Johnstone and The Loose Moose Theatre. She is a recurring faculty member at Drama School Mumbai. She is also a Certified Michael Chekhov Technique teacher from the National Michael Chekhov Association, USA.

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