Without A Shield by Evey McKellar

In Level 5 improv, our teacher asked us to write down three performers we admire. One of mine is a DCH favorite: Sallie Bowen. From her standup routine featuring the ‘south mouth’ to her hysterical character videos on YouTube to her wholly, beautifully-awkward commitment to the game anytime she’s on stage, I love watching her perform. I’m inspired by and in awe of the way she stands in her own being, how she holds vulnerability with such confidence, curiosity, and creativity.

As I grow as an improviser, I keep thinking vulnerability will get easier and more comfortable. Yet most of the time when I step into a scene, it’s not that I feel comfortable, but I have decided to commit to the practice, to my peers, and to my personhood. It feels like showing up without a shield, just me and myself, two chairs, and the trust that others will have my back.

You can likely think of spaces where vulnerability is unwelcome and unsupported. In those less-than-safe spaces, we learn it’s dangerous to say the wrong thing, to act in a weird way, or even to show emotion. In these spaces, a person experiences neither comfort nor safety. Eventually, behavior is modeled based on the path of least resistance, avoiding the spotlight, and shrinking our voices. Shields are tall and fortified, because trust and self-confidence are non-existent.

As we build on trust and support together as improvisers, the confidence to be vulnerable as an individual grows. As our shields drop, our muscles to stand alone strengthen. We know, these people have got my back.

Most importantly, in this space I also build profound trust with myself: I have my own back.

I begin to step out confidently on stage, not fully prepared or necessarily comfortable, but instead confident that vulnerability is something I can handle, that I can recover from whatever may be the response.

The more I get to know the DCH community, the more I see this bravery and vulnerability onstage translate to relationships offstage: people are sharing their struggles, down days, and beautiful humanity in all its forms. They open up, they drop their shields, they know that no matter the tears, flaws, or struggle moments, their vulnerability is a beautiful and human thing.

I have heard Kyle Austin tell multiple improvisers: If it feels weird, do it harder. Commit. The choice you’ve made on stage, don’t back down. Support yourself. We’ll be there to support you.

The pursuit of comfort is a narrow aim when it comes to growth and vulnerability. The aim for comfort can lead people to disconnect or to exert power over another for the sake of self-protection. Rather, in improv we strive to create a container where risk and authenticity play together without fear of retribution or shame. The pursuit of comfort has been known to perpetuate systems of privilege; instead can we nurture curiosity about who is being left or excluded? The pursuit of comfort can cause my complicit ears and eyes to close; can I instead open space for silenced and dismissed voices to be heard and lifted up? When realness and risk-taking is the goal (instead of comfort), connection and safety is created in the process.

The confidence Sallie exhibits as she steps out in delightful weirdness brings me to a soulful belly-laughter every time, not just because her creations are hilarious, but because she displays what is so deeply and marvelously human. She seems so deeply connected to her inherent value, driven not by comfort, but by a resolute and playful courage. May we continue to follow the example of our peers who so bravely, loudly, weirdly, wildly, and beautifully show up without a shield, knowing that they not only can count on the support of others, but that they already have their own backs.

Evey McKellar is a Level 5 Improv student, a writer and UMC clergy. She works for a nonprofit, lives in Dallas, and loves Cane Rosso.