“F” is for “Fear”

“Fear of spontaneity is common. There is safety in old familiar feelings and actions. Spontaneity asks that we enter an unknown territory—ourselves!”

Viola Spolin, Theater Games for Rehearsal: A Director’s Handbook. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1985. p.11


I make no claim to coining the improv adage “run towards fear” and if I had to pay a royalty for every time I uttered these words someone would have a nice chunk of change in their pocket! I find that this advice has become central to my training philosophy as little of value will transpire on the improv stage (and one could argue in life in general) if we allow our Fear to get the better of us. I’ve written in a previous entry on blocking here about some of the more prevalent sources of this anxiety and how an inability to break through these barriers is antithetical to the improvisational spirit of play.

All artistic enterprises likely include some wrestling with our inner creative demons, but as the improv process is so public, this battle typically stands front and center for improvisational practitioners. If there is to be joy, abandon and attack in our work, running towards fear becomes not only a mantra but almost a requirement. Without taming this debilitating beast, we may spend much of our time as improvisers lurking in the wings or backstage (or even worse, on the stage itself) musing on what we might, could, or should have done in the scene that meanwhile passes us by.


Carefree improv is happening, and then suddenly it isn’t…

When to Run Towards Fear

Here are some particularly important moments to prod yourself to action:

1.) If you’re a good kind of uncomfortable. It’s amply foreseeable that improv will push us outside of our comfort zones and I would contend that we need to identify and minimize this type of fear when it infringes on our work. Trying a game that you’ve never played before, stepping up and into a featured role that requires artistic stamina, or attacking material that might feel alien or challenging to you all strike me as signs that you’re heading towards growth and discovery. As I have become more experienced as a player and deviser, I find myself actually seeking these dynamics as the opposite of this type of fear can prove to be complacency.

2.) If you’re unsure where the scene is going. Again, this is a rather boilerplate scenario that could (should) describe most if not all improvisational undertakings, but fear can none-the-less creep into the work especially if we thought we knew where a scene was heading and now it suddenly takes a sharp turn. When uncertainty beckons it can be human nature to recoil or lean backwards, but as improvisers we must fight this survival instinct and instead lean into this glorious unknown. Fear in these moments feels synonymous with losing or ceding control. Take one step forward trusting that your teammates will then do the same.

3.) If you’re required to assume an unfamiliar stance. Another moment to just “jump” is when the scene necessitates that we fill a role or function with which we may not have much or any prior experience. In the real world, I couldn’t fix a computer if my life depended on it, but on stage my I.T. worker should exude a confidence and surety that belies my true incompetence. I also have a pretty pronounced political and spiritual point of view but should step resolutely into the shoes of different positions as the action dictates. I would contextualize this advice by noting that a fear of misrepresenting others is legitimate and warranted, and demands that we seek empathy in our portrayals and an intellectual curiosity to research and educate ourselves when problematic blindnesses reveal themselves. Fearless improv should not become a cover for thoughtless improv. Consider exploring my earlier thoughts on archetypes here.

When to Apply the Breaks

There are also valid moments when your “fear” might be a voice you need to listen to and honor:

1.) If you are putting yourself at unnecessary physical, emotional, or psychological risk. Trust your instincts, honor your own personal boundaries, and retain your agency in a way that keeps you safe.

2.) If you are putting your scene partner at unnecessary physical, emotional, or psychological risk. Make sure you are consciously and empathetically checking in with your scene partners as the scene develops and adjusting as needed.

3.) If you are putting your audience at unnecessary physical, emotional, or psychological risk. Also display care in how your choices are landing with the audience. There is a marked difference between challenging an audience to reconsider deeply held beliefs and triggering or insulting them obliviously.

Final Thought

With the exception of the three circumstances listed directly above, I would posit that “fear” can often serve as evidence that we’re doing something right on the improv stage. If we don’t allow it to short circuit our creativity or make us retreat into our heads or the wings, fear can remind us of the awesome challenge of spontaneous performance. I wonder if seasoned improvisers ever truly tame fear or if, rather, they have found a workable truce in which they acknowledge the daunting nature of the work at hand and choose to transform the whispering voice of fear into bold action and energy.

Related Entries: Blocking Antonyms: Abandon, Courage, Playfulness Synonyms: Inaction, Stasis

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2021 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Ballet

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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