Assuming Competence

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When I close most of the improv classes I teach, I quote one of my favorite things Mick Napier, the Artistic Director of the Annoyance Theatre, ever taught me: assuming competence.

So often we enter learning situations with a losing perspective. It may be feeling like we need to “fix” something wrong with ourselves. Or, feeling like we’re we’re up for the challenge…but only to the point of initial discomfort, at which point we decide we’ve made our maximum effort and that’s the limit of our abilities. My friend Annie yells at me for not working hard enough at the gym — I flex my muscles till I can feel them warmed up, but she insists that the muscles must shake for them to actually improve!

I find improvisers often wall off the things that they may actually be best at playing. In my own case, I hated “Bro” humor in Chicago. I was studying with Susan Messing at iO and everyone in the class was a straight white guy, and I resented their sense of humor and power and sheer numbers in the class. So I didn’t like playing Bros onstage in scenes or laughing at “Bro humor.” But Susan told me I should play Bros as much as possible because it would be a Bro with my brain — which would make the character unique. Now, my favorite thing in the world is to be a football announcer in a scene. I make up imaginary team names and describe plays that don’t exist! “Alright everyone, let’s give it up for the Houston Redbirds against the Washington Ghosts! This is a nail-biter game of balls! Someone just scored a touch-win!” The thing I told myself I disliked onstage ended up being one of my favorite, most imaginative place from which to improvise.

An audience loves when you try something genuinely new. As humans I think we can tell when people push themselves out of their wheel house. There’s something noble and inspiring in embracing your fears publicly. After all, the #1 reported fear of the human race is public speaking — so anyone willing do that, especially as an improviser without the safety net of even knowing the words you are going to say in advance, is a Warrior of the Light! It also is why from now until the day you stop performing you can not show fear onstage, even if you feel afraid. It’s your job to be courageous. “With great power comes great responsibility,” said the Spider Man’s dad…

And so, I invite nervous students to embrace the old maxim: fake it till you make it. To assume you are competent at something, even though you may not technically be yet. But go and give yourself that power and ownership in advance, and you will ‘trick’ your brain into believing in itself enough to actually master your fear. An example I think Mick once brought up: Are you bad with names? Next time you introduce yourself, say someone’s name back to them and promise you’ll remember it by telling them how you’re pretty good with remembering names. By publicly stating your power, you will now remember that person’s name. After all, you would look like a total asshole if you didn’t.

And to make a change stick, you have to decide you want the result. If you’re making effort because some teacher or guru or someone told you to do so, it won’t stick. We only remember and apply the things we want to learn. You need to find a way to actually like the things that previously made you afraid. For improvisers that like to play characters close to themselves, you have to find a way to enjoy being a cum-guzzling grandpa onstage. Or you won’t actually expand your character range outside of a teacher forcing you to do so in a classroom setting.

I am trying to first be kinder to myself in order to change myself. To treat me the way I teach others. These days, I look at my limiting behaviors and acknowledge the positive attributes in them. For example, a limiting thought pattern of mine is how I get rankled over life never being fair and tending to think the world is against me. But on the flip-side, I naturally feel protective of people I care about and will stick my neck out for justice if I think someone is being mistreated. My martyr syndrome manifests itself in both in negative and positive ways!

I’m also realizing that I don’t think you need to change all the millions of things you wish were different about yourself. My cousin Jeff recently told me to simply accommodate my ‘bad habits.’ If I know that after I post this Medium article, I’ll be re-checking Facebook every five minutes to see if it’s gaining any traction, then perhaps I’ll purposely share it right before I know I’m getting on a plane. Voila! I accommodated an impulse as opposed to fighting it. And I won’t guilt myself when I pick up my phone to check it after the flight lands.

I’ll sign off with another Susan Messing quote, “If you’re not having fun, you’re the asshole. You may not like the scene you’re in, but it’s the scene you’re in, so play it like it’s the last time you ever get to improvise.” Even the struggle can be a joy. You can embrace how hard it is to grow. I think change is frustrating because true transformation is imperceptible and happens in increments over time when you aren’t looking. So don’t beat up on yourself when you feel like you’re not improving. Jonathan Safran Foer said it best, “I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.” Be excited about whatever moment you’re in and embrace it.

I teach the AP4 improv class at The Annoyance Theatre NY and classes of my own at