–by Colin Ryan at astanduplife.com (for encouraging me to share my story with the world)
When I first met a kindergarten teacher named Sharon a few months ago, she struck me as a clever, thoughtful person – softspoken, but quietly confident. Which is why I was surprised to hear her say, a few weeks later at a storytelling event, that she used to be extremely shy. When I asked her how this could be, she started talking about the surprising effect an improv class had on her life. Right away it became clear that Sharon had discovered a surprising and simple way to grow more than she ever would have thought possible.
Not long after, the following interview took place…
ASUL: What were you like before you did improv?
SHARON: The person I was before I did improv seems a bit foreign to me now. Prior to my improv experience, I was a quiet, shy person who rarely ventured away from the security of my close friends and family, or my home. Growing up, I was always friendly with my peers, but aside from a few close relationships, I never really felt like I fit in. So I spent much of my high school and college years watching from the shadows of the social scene and focused primarily on my education and career.
I guess I just hoped that the social aspect of my life would fall into place once I achieved my career goals and that once I was an adult with a career my life would naturally become more exciting… instead I ended up with a great career and a fairly non-existent social life. And I pretty much accepted that that’s what was in the cards for me, and that anything else might be too uncomfortable.
ASUL: Why did you get involved with improv?
SHARON: About two years ago I began doing some serious reflecting on my life. I resigned from my teaching position at a Catholic school, set out to complete my Master’s degree in literacy and began applying for teaching positions in the public school system.
But after I received many rejection letters, I began to feel lost and afraid. One day, a brochure from the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts arrived in my mail, offering adult acting in a safe, supportive environment.
The idea of trying something new and totally out of the ordinary seemed very intriguing. I have always been a fan of movies, television, and theater, and often wondered what it would be like to play someone other than myself: a person who wasn’t so reserved and whose life was filled with excitement.
Part of me felt like I had already been so courageous by quitting my job with nothing to fall back on, I might as well spend some of my free time on this journey of personal discovery trying new experiences. As interested as I was though, it probably took me a week to complete the registration process, and once I did, I can’t say that I didn’t experience reservations and moments of panic. There were plenty!
ASUL: What was it about improv that intimidated you?
SHARON: The class was titled ‘Acting for Bashful Beginners,’ I guess to make it easier for people like me to face their fears. But I think my greatest intimidation about the class was myself. That, and my fear of public embarrassment and personal humiliation.
It’s funny how things work out though. When I walked into my first class, I discovered that the instructor was the drama director from my old high school. As soon as I stepped off the elevator and saw her, my anxiety level plummeted and I was able to breathe.
ASUL: What sorts of changes in your thinking or in your behavior did you start to notice when you began improv?
SHARON: In the first class we were encouraged to “embrace our inner fool.” And I felt an incredible sense of freedom; one I had never felt before. My teacher is such a warm and supportive person, and she is incredible at what she does. She really knows how to create a safe environment for all of her students, and through many exercises that required us to make fools out of ourselves by making strange faces, sounds, and movements, it helped to create an unbreakable bond between us “actors” that many of us continue to share to this day. It was in this class that I met many of my closest friends.
One of the most important lessons I gained from my improv classes was that I shouldn’t hold back who I am or what I have to say out of fear of being laughed at. That we should embrace, and not hide, our inner fool. With that lesson, I almost instantly found myself standing taller and speaking out more. I felt less awkward and shy; like I didn’t have to sit back and observe from the dark, quiet, corner of the room anymore. For the first time, I felt like I was actually able to look people in the eye when I spoke, instead of timidly looking away, surveying every social situation for an escape route.
I also learned that “acting is reacting.” Once I was able to relate this information to how I dealt with every day moments, I realized how I choose to respond to different situations could actually produce different outcomes. I felt like I had permission to share myself more with others. I no longer felt like I would be swimming in the ocean without a life preserver, instead, I had gained the confidence and know-how to respond to others and rescue myself if needed.
I came to love the feeling of adrenaline pumping through me when I performed. It was exciting to be so lost in the moment that you are totally unaware that people are watching. I needed more! So, Acting for Bashful Beginners part I led to part II, which led to monologue work and scene study. This summer, I performed in a small production of “Paper Highway” in the South End Art Hop in Burlington, and this year, I’m back at the Flynn for more classes to explore more about developing characters.
Professionally, I also feel like improv has helped me grow. The poise and confidence I gained with my acting classes helped me immensely with my interviewing skills and my embracing of my inner fool has definitely enhanced my teaching. Connecting with children has always been easy for me, but now, role playing and bringing life to what we are studying comes completely naturally to my teaching.
ASUL: Why do you think an improv class helped you come out of your shell?
SHARON: My life has been forever changed by improv. Two years ago, I was a very quiet and shy person who hated uncomfortable situations, rarely venturing away from home’s safety net. Today, I see myself as a more outgoing person who welcomes experiences that take me out of my comfort zone because I now know that with change comes opportunity and opportunity fosters personal growth.
Improv classes have also allowed me to meet some of the nicest people I know; people I may never had associated with or met otherwise. I have also met some of my closest friends through this experience who have enriched my life by encouraging me to get out, try new experiences, have fun, and LIVE! Thanks to them, my calendar is no longer completely void of social events, and I have had many more opportunities to laugh, dance, sing, and enjoy life. I am definitely out of my shell!
Even though my story, like Sharon’s, also started with a new hobby, I continue to be amazed by how a change that seemed pretty random, even trivial, can begin to speak into the depths of who we are. I am so thrilled to have met Sharon, and to share her story with you, because it is clear to me that the very first step down the road to a stand up life is simply that: to stand up in whatever way you have always felt tempted to stay down. It is always a challenge to change, but as Sharon so insightfully points out, with change comes opportunity, and with opportunity comes growth.
Thanks for sharing your story Sharon.