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Defining the present

author: mac brocka&c editor

Improvisation relies heavily on community support, something that has made it a haven for those struggling with mental illness. Hitchhikers Improv: Bear With Us | Credit: David Carnegie

A reflection on the relationship between spontaneous performance and anxiety.

“I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless, and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.” –Robin Williams

The first thing you’ll notice is that the lights are bright. Hot, too. Hotter than a crowded audience, depending on the venue. When the stage lights are up, you probably won’t be able to see past the third row of seats, and the rest is mostly shadows. Next thing you notice is the sound. As much as what happens on the stage carries through the house, the noise through the house carries to the stage. Buzzing phones, shifting seats, and murmured comments get picked up by every ear on stage.

For improvisers who deal with anxiety, all this and more make for trouble. I’ve been performing improv for eight years, and as more conversations open about mental health stigma, I’ve noticed just how many people in the improv community encounter some form of anxiety in their daily lives. People have sometimes told me that it’s the type of person – that mental illness somehow leads to heightened creativity the way blindness makes you an excellent listener. Is it possible that creativity, rather than being created from mental illness, attracts it?

My personal relationship with anxiety was quiet for many years. Our courtship started last fall at a festival in Vancouver. It started small: the big buildings and heavy traffic left me flirting with those all-too-common light heads and racing hearts.

It wasn’t until this month that our relationship started heating up. We wouldn’t spend every night together, but when the stars aligned with a crowded room and too many unfamiliar faces, the same feeling from those Vancouver streets would tiptoe back in. Sometimes in the middle of the party, but more often afterwards, somewhere quiet.

We took a quick turn last week at a show I’d been looking forward to for weeks. The first hour of the show was fast, loud, and exciting. It was a huge cast in close quarters with a high-energy crowd. As we broke for intermission, the familiar signs started: my hands couldn’t keep still, my heart rate was picking up, and words were going through one ear and out the other. Within another minute, I found myself in a tiny room backstage staring at a single scratched note on the wall. Even though I stared at it for at least ten minutes, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what it had said a second after looking.

Eventually, I heard the sounds of the show starting again – and my cue to have already gone back on stage. I made my way out and crouched next to a fellow performer, one of the few people who was in on my fling with panic, and one who had many of the same struggles. I tapped his leg to get his attention, and managed to make eye contact for a moment. I was sure that in that moment, like any decent sitcom, all my thoughts and feelings were coming across just with the subtleties of my eyebrow movements. Somehow, my telepathic cues that not everything was quite right didn’t come across, so I just kept it to myself.

When you’re onstage during a panic attack, the first thing you’ll notice is that the lights are way too bright. When you look out to the crowd, you’ll just see a big shadow. It makes the voices and all the little sounds come as less of a collection of things and more as one loud, chaotic sound without a face.

Next, your panic breeds panic. I knew I couldn’t perform in the state I was in. I could leave. I could walk off stage with no explanation. I could get up to do a scene and stand quietly in the back. I could run outside and let the cold deal with it. But leaving was no option. So I sat, hands shaking, eyes darting, hoping for a miracle before certain disaster.

My miracle came in the form of two performers starting the first scene of that half of the show. They played children, desperate to find a way into their mother’s precious fish tank. It was strange, and silly, and magic. I was sold into their nonsense world. The two worked together to find their happy ending – they said yes to each other, they supported each others every impulse, and they believed every moment. Their success was our success. In moments I was back. Their strange, far-off world brought me back to this one.

When I’m asked why I choose to stay in improv, I remember a piece of advice that the same performer with whom I tried to have some psychic connection gave me about panic attacks. “Get out of your head.” It’s the same advice I give any new improviser: stop thinking and start living as close to the present as you can. It’s the ultimate foe to a panic attack.

In improv, you are forced to keep your focus as close to the very second you’re in as possible. I often find that the most present I ever find myself is in the middle of a show, even when that sometimes means pretending to be a child in a fish tank. When those two improvisers brought me back down, I was just watching, under hot lights and surrounded by small sounds, as they did something wonderful. Through creating, artists have the opportunity to provide experiences just like this.

This week is Bell’s Let’s Talk week. This is a story I wasn’t sold on sharing. This is a story I have in common with more than a few in my community. This is a story that is all too common and all too scary. As artists, we live in our heads and live on the reactions of others. Many of the funniest people you know might have the same story.

My story, my romance with anxiety, hasn’t seen its last fling. My challenge to myself for this year – both on and off stage – is to seek out moments to be completely present. It’s a lesson to take from any basic improv class, and one that is often the hardest to learn. Challenge yourself to take note of how often you find yourself thinking about the next thing you have to do with your day rather than what you’re in the middle of, or what you’re going to say in response rather than what is being said to you. But as long as there are more stories to tell, we will find brave, creative, and empowered people to tell them.

Challenge yourself to be present, try creating something, and reach out to someone who may need you more than you know. Then, we can all do something magical.

About Mason Sliva