Do you remember when you first started attending improv shows? I suppose all kinds of people react differently, but I always had a few things going on. One is that I am totally in awe of comedic talent. I’ve spent several nights a week watching, teaching, or performing comedy for the last few years: I’m still floored and surprised by improvisers really nailing it. It’s thrilling. It’s scintillating.
Many of my most awkward moments have been after comedy or improv shows. Once, in college, I fawned so hard over Jon Benjamin at UCB NY that he had to reassure me that it was okay to talk to him. In Edinburgh, Scotland I blushed whenever I saw the student improv team members in the library and was unable to get a good participation grade in my honors course because Humphrey, the funniest of “The Improverts”, was in my class.
When I first started taking improv classes in Austin about four years ago, this whole situation was ameliorated somewhat by the fact that I could say “Hi” to my really cool teacher or occasionally have the (totally dumb, am I right guys?) conversation with other students about what level we’re all in. But I came to shows with my husband, who like most partners of improvisers, doesn’t do improv and the culture of the place I first started taking classes at had a cold edge to it. So we came and went from many shows without anyone at all acknowledging our presence. But there was this one performer dude, one of the owners/major performers of the theater, who always warmly greeted me and my husband.
He high fived us every time he saw us! I’d never had this guy with the funky handlebar ‘stash as a teacher or coach or anything, he just noticed us and made a point to be super friendly. To thank us for coming out to shows. To ask if we were in classes. To ask my husband how his day was. Simple stuff. No-brainer stuff. Except that practically no one else did those things. By winter time I’d been in classes for months, I had an internship, and (to be totally immodest) some people knew I was funny. I should have felt totally at home in that theater. However, Christmas party time rolled around and it was hideous.
The party was cliquey like crazy! It was as if someone had declared a taboo against speaking to people you weren’t in an improv troupe with. The conversations we could get into were uncomfortable because they felt like the other performers, the ones I was so in awe of when I watched them, were either trying to irrationally one-up me in conversation (as if your place on a house team or your role in some festival matters to me) or force me to prove my worthiness to be spoken to by entertaining them with bon mots and declarations of my own status. My husband is an extrovert, such an extrovert that his actual job is almost professional extrovert. However, no one would speak to Bear Bear since he didn’t do improv, and of course improvisers can’t talk about anything else! It’s not like they’re well-rounded people with lots of interests who are trained in listening. So, I clutched my secret santa gift to my chest and we started for the exit. On the way out, that one guy with the high fives asked us how we were and offered us a piece of his sushi. It was the highlight of the night.
The importance of what eventually happened with the high five guy and my favorite teacher 1, and how it ended up impacting my whole life is a different story. But this one is just about high fives. Can we all remind each other about how important it is to welcome people when they come to improv shows? To make them feel like they’re honored guests at our party and not interlopers at a terrifying middle school dance?
Anytime anyone walks into an improv venue it would be killer if they felt at home. Like they belonged there and were appreciated for what they’re doing; being patrons, fans, supporters! They’re the whole reason we get to do this amazing thing that feeds us. Improv is fun to do and fun to watch, but nothing is as fun as having someone reach out to you. I try to continually remind myself that as nervous, busy, or occupied as I may be I am also in a place of comfort at improv shows and that I owe it to the universe to make sure that what we do is fervently inclusive and full of love. Every improv class I teach is ended with high fives: this is an homage to those early greetings that meant so much to me, a reminder to myself about what welcome feels like, and a hope that high fives are contagious and we’ll all always be forever inviting people into a fun-as-shit community.