I have been involved in theater in one form or another since middle school (my Mammy Yokum in our production of Lil’ Abner was a hoot-and-a-half. The school newsletter said my prop work with the corn-cob pipe was inspired). And I’ve always preferred comedy to tragedy. There is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you can make a theater full of people laugh. You are giving and receiving enormous amount of energy simultaneously, and I have not found any other rush that equals it.
In scripted theater, you get to learn where the laughs are likely to be every night. True, each audience is unique, and some may laugh at something that on any other night got no reaction, but a pattern does evolve. Often the hardest thing to do when performing a run of a show is to not start anticipating the laughs. Because when they don’t come as expected (as invariably happens), this can take the actor out of the moment and often can lead to an inner monologue of, “Why didn’t they laugh. I am not funny? Why am I up here? Aughh!”
In improv comedy you don’t know when the laughs are coming because you have no script. You have the bare bones of a scene—most of which you get from the audience (Actor: “Here are two people; what is their relationship? Audience: “Brother and sister.”) The actors build the scene in that moment, relying on themselves and the other actors on stage to move the relationship/action/resolution forward. When it works, the confidence you feel in yourself and your fellow players is amazing. When it doesn’t work, that stretch of time can be excruciating. You sometimes wish the stage would open up and swallow you whole. The key though, is what do you do with that moment? The best performers dissect it later, figure out what went wrong, and learn from it. Maybe you weren’t listening to your scene partner; maybe you can see an opportunity that you missed in the moment to take the scene into a better direction. Bombing on stage is never fun, but it can certainly be a growth experience, if you let it.
We’ve all seen the bumper stickers: “A bad day [insert hobby] is better than a good day at the office.” For me, that’s performing, making people laugh. It’s hard work, and can be discouraging when a show doesn’t go as well as you’d like, but when it all clicks, it’s exhilarating and, dare I say, life-affirming.
If only I could get the same rush from requirements elicitation. Or support myself with comedy. However, as the great Stephen Wright once said, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”