I step onto that New York City subway and it takes me back. I lived in New York for nine months in 2008-09. Then commuted to New York (sometimes) from Hoboken until 2011. I remember taking the subway every day, feeling sad and alone with no idea of what I was doing. I remember lugging so many heavy bags to and from the bus station. Very often, too. I couldn’t wait to go home, every other weekend or so, to see my family and friends and then boyfriend, Mike. Why I had to bring so much shit with me, I have no idea. I think about my 24-year-old self, and how sad she was, without even realizing just how sad and lonely she was, and then I think of where I am now. It seems so long ago but at the same time, I can’t believe how far I’ve come in just over six years. And how incredibly happy I am now. It fills me with gratefulness. I am so grateful for everyone and everything in my life right now.
Stepping out of the subway and onto the street, I don’t even realize how I immediately go into New York auto pilot. i.e. head down, get to where I need to be, everybody is in my way. Can you walk faster please? Don’t you realize I have somewhere to be?? Ugh. New York does not bring out my best side. It brings out my tough side. I am so over my tough side. I want to relax and take my time and enjoy the moment. Enjoy the people around me, not curse them for walking too slow or getting in my way.
I’ve never spent much time in Chelsea, so I’m not familiar with the area. When I walk into Steve’s parents’ apartment, I feel like I’m walking into Aunt Jackie’s old place. The smell, the size, and surprisingly, the decor, too. I love it. I love hearing all the traffic sounds outside. I love remembering the feeling the first time I ever stayed with Aunt Jackie, and felt so excited by how alive New York City was. How exciting it was. How there were so many opportunities here.
I was so naive.
Steve and I consider going uptown one day this week, to check out my old stomping grounds. But now that we’re here, I realize I have no desire to go back there. There’s nothing for me back there. And I’d be lying if I said I don’t have a fear of seeing my old acting coach. Steve looks at me like I’m a complete lunatic when I tell him this. “New York is a big place.” Yea, yea, I know I know. Don’t you know by now that I’m an irrational human being??
We’re at dinner with Steve’s parents on our second night in the city and two ladies sitting on Steve’s other side see Steve Martin walk by. They say he’s probably going to see the show next door (as if they have any idea what Steve Martin might be doing tonight). Some up-and-coming talent. I would love to see a show. We don’t have tickets, but Frank lets us know that there’s a theater right by the apartment. We should check it out. Some improv theater. Maybe you’ve heard of it – UCB.
Of all the improv I’ve tried – The Pit in NYC, Groundlings and UCB in LA, UCB is hands down my absolute favorite. I had taken three improv classes before I joined UCB, and it wasn’t until then that things started to really click and make sense to me. I did two seasons at UCB. I like it the best because it’s the most grounded in reality. Groundlings wants you to play characters – an old man, a dog, objects (what?!), and the teachers at the PIT didn’t really educate me on how to make anything work. They just said, get up there! Try again! …Or maybe I just needed a few years to finally get it. Regardless, there’s a special place in my heart for UCB. (And Amy Poehler helped create it. And she’s my hero.)
I’ll never forget the first time something clicked for me. A real a-ha moment, if you will. Seriously, my mouth dropped open like, Oh my God. I get it.
It had to do with letting go and not feeling stupid about whatever choices you make – which up until this point had been a real struggle for me. Prior to this moment, I daydreamed about coming up with a clever and funny scene. Preparing for it, nailing it… unfortunately, this is the opposite of improv.
The teacher – I actually think he was a sub – told me (or everyone) that it doesn’t matter what you see. It doesn’t have to make sense. If you see it, it’s there, so just say it. Say it out loud.
Woah. And that was it. Instead of second-guessing my “stupid” idea, I had to just believe in it. So I did. And when I stood up in front of the class with a partner for a scene and I looked to my right and saw the wall of my store filled floor-to-ceiling with sneakers organized by the color of their shoelaces, I SAID IT. I saw it, so I said it, and it felt GOOD. I didn’t feel stupid at all. I felt like once I had spoken it, everyone believed me, and it was truth.
This may seem like such a simple, unimportant thing, but it opened up a big door for me.
I wasn’t really a huge fan of our teacher that first year (maybe that’s why I credit a substitute for my breakthrough) but to be fair, we originally had this other guy as our teacher, but after two classes, he booked a role for something – maybe he was shooting a pilot – so we had to have someone take over our class. She just didn’t seem like she really wanted to be there.
Anyway, I don’t like when teachers ignore mistakes. She didn’t always do it, but she did it enough. I like teachers to be hard on me. Enter Will, my second year teacher. A real hard ass. He was great. Never let anyone get away with anything, and if you weren’t getting it, he’d usually make you stay up there until you did. It was horrifying if it was happening to you, incredibly uncomfortable if it was happening to one of your classmates, and either way, super helpful. Will was the best.
This is where I had my second breakthrough. It’s not only important to listen to your partner – and it is, it’s like the most important thing – but it’s also important to listen to the audience. Will would always say, don’t try to be funny, just be real. Be authentic. Stop trying to force a joke. If you’re up there, with your partner, having a conversation and doing object work (ugh, my worst thing ever) something funny will eventually happen. All you have to do is listen for the first laugh. That’s it. Just the first laugh.
What did the audience laugh at? That’s your first funny thing. Maybe it was actually funny or maybe it was just really weird or maybe it’s not funny at all but the way you said it made people laugh. Whatever it was, it was funny. So use it. That’s your starting point for the scene. Now the scene can really move forward.
When I learned this, I was so relieved. Oh, thank God, I don’t have to be funny! I can just be me and people will laugh at me! I can totally do this!
So Steve and I walk over to the theater after dinner. There’s a show going on. The door is closed. The guy at the ticket window lets us know that Mike Birbiglia is performing. Are you freaking kidding me?! Steve and I are so bummed. We would have been so stoked to see him. The fact that Steve and I have both heard of him, in a setting like this, is very, very unlikely. Our worlds rarely cross. In this case, I know Birbiglia as an actor and writer, and more specifically for his movie, Sleepwalk With Me. Steve heard him on a podcast – The Tim Ferriss Show, and really enjoyed him.
Oh well, we’ll take two tickets to the next show.
We grab a drink at the bar across the street, and then head back over to the theater. It’s a Wednesday night and we clearly missed the headliner for the evening, so it’s no surprise that we are two of about ten people in the entire audience. We watch two different improv groups perform. Both are really not that great. Not at all. But I still love it. I love being in an improv theater and watching things unfold on stage. I love how it’s just as new and fresh for the audience as it is for the actors on stage. I love how they are putting themselves out there, even if I don’t think it’s funny. It’s brave and vulnerable: two of my favorite things. I respect what these actors are trying to accomplish and I give them so much credit for their efforts.
On Thursday evening after dinner, Steve and I go back to UCB. After the first show – each show is an hour – we buy tickets for the next one. We’re hooked! I can’t believe Steve is down for another show. He is the absolute best, and this is so much fun. I’m getting pumped. I’m getting inspired. Maybe I should try to find an improv theater when we get back to Charlotte. Why not?