The DCH Diaries: A Little Learning is a Dang'rous Thing

Alexander Pope A little learning is a dang’rous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again. -- Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Essay on Criticism, 1709

OK, if nobody else is going to say it, I will. Level 3 was damn hard. Maybe not for you, but for me, it was a rude awakening. I went into Level 3 thinking I was getting this improv thing down. I was feeling more comfortable on stage and thought I had the basics of the two-person scene. I loved my Level 3 teachers, Colten and Stephanie. My new classmates were terrific. I could hardly wait for class on Thursdays. Most important of all, I was having a blast.

But as I got closer to showcase time, I began to realize that I don’t know jack $&%# about improv. Oh sure, in Level 1 and Level 2 our teachers present a ton of information - everything from the foundation principle of "Yes, and" to how to put on a show. When I first learned about Dallas Comedy House and its Training Center, I was incredulous that someone could teach me how to be funny, much less how to be funny on stage. And yet, even in the first two levels, our teachers packed in so much information, so many exercises, tips, principles, and techniques, my head was near bursting.

Then we entered Level 3. I began to see that the "basics" we'd been learning were not really basic at all. They're sophisticated and complex tools designed to get us thinking like improvisers. It reminded me of law school. Law school isn't about learning facts and principles and spitting those back out on a test. Those three years of study are designed to teach us to analyze situations and think about them in a way different than we had before. But here - at improv school - I didn't have three years to develop the instincts of an improviser. I'd crammed all those basics into a mere 14 weeks. Here we were, at the beginning of Level 3 just starting the process of synthesizing all we'd learned about developing relationships on stage and expanding that into multi-person scenes with formats.

If you’ve been there, maybe you know what I’m thinking. If you haven’t, it's something along the lines of: “Are you friggin’ mad?”

Long about Week 5, my mind went into overdrive. It was all starting to feel a lot less fun and a lot more chore-y. I began to fret that I would never be able to learn it all, think on my feet the way my improv idols do, stop writing scripts in my head, get through a set without second guessing every move, or quit rehashing scenes in the car on the way home.

As I approached the Level 3 showcase with all this junk swimming inside my skull, it began to gel that I was overthinking everything, maybe even obsessing about it. I realized that this must be what Sarah Wyatt referred to back in Level 1 as “in your head” thinking. Way back then, I had no idea what that term meant. I just knew it was not a good thing.

As I reported in my last post, I sought out the sage Sarah before my last showcase. She admonished me to stop thinking and to stay in the moment. My wise teacher, Colten Winburn, told me that an exercise in object work brings him back to the present. Armed and ready, I went into the showcase being more “in the moment” than I thought I could be and ended up doing a respectable job and had a lot of fun.

But it seems like so long since our showcase. These last few weeks at the Tuesday Jam, my time on stage has left me feeling more crappy than triumphant. Sure, I expect that I will have scenes that feel off or that go nowhere, but so much of the time of late nothing I do on stage seems to work. No laughs, no chuckles, hardly a snicker. Even more serious scenes were lifeless. No disparagement meant to my wonderful scene partners. I accept total responsibility. In fact, I would start feeling sorry for my scene partners and the audience. There were times I prayed for a mercy edit.

I do not know the answer to this dilemma, but I suspect that getting out of my head may require more than a quick pep talk. In the quote above, Mr. Pope admonishes us to avoid getting cocky when we think we know it all, because we don’t. The only way to overcome that dangerous thinking, he tells us, is to drink more of the Kool-Aid. Starting Level 4 will help, and continuing to subject you poor martyrs to my feeble attempts on Tuesday nights will keep me in the game, but I will also be actively searching for antidotes that will help me stay in the moment and out of my head. If you behave yourselves, I may reveal my progress in next week’s post.

Either that, or I will succumb to the hopelessness of it all, quit improv, and curse the day I ever laid eyes on this blasted theater.

Oh, please - you know I’m just being dramatic, right?

Next up: Stop Thinking About Elephants

Carron is a Level 4 student in the Dallas Comedy House Training Center, where her husband, Gary, is in Level 2 and her daughter, Haley, is in Level 1. She is pleased that they form DCH’s first improv family dynasty (as far as she knows). Their legacy will be a new house format called the Armstrong.