"Around here, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…..And curiosity keeps leading us down new paths." - Walt Disney
Two years ago today, I signed up for my first improv class. It was my 29th birthday and I was unemployed, having been laid off in October immediately after the Lehman Brothers crash, when City Opera laid off one-fourth of the staff. I had suspended my COBRA health insurance to try and make rent, had exhausted all my credit cards trying to pay bills, and sobbed to my parents that I might have to move back in with them, into my old bedroom in South Florida, where I’d also have to beg my old boss for my job back -as That Whatserface Sad-Looking Girl Who Keeps Track of the Keys at the Ford Dealership. It was truly my nightmare scenario.
That year, because I couldn’t afford to go out for my birthday, I hung out at home (for what I’m pretty sure was the fiftieth consecutive day in a row) and watched reruns of The Office with my (at the time) roommate, who graciously indulged me when I finally burst into tears like an angry six year old, and was all, “I can’t do this anymore! My life is over! My life is over and I’m not even 30!” and then followed this up with a serious of snot-filled “whyyyy? WHYYYYYs???” like Nancy Kerrigan after being clubbed in the knee. And my roommate, who, bless her, had NO idea what to do with such a blubbery, melodramatic train wreck, sang me happy birthday and suggested I take my mind off the job thing by doing something I’d always wanted to do that maybe I finally had some time to try now.
"Isn’t there anything?" she asked. "There has to be something you like. What have you got to lose at this point?"
And through snot and phlegm and retarded, whiny hiccoughs, I said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to take a class at Upright Citizens Brigade.”
So I did. I used some of my last few hundred dollars and signed up for a Wednesday 101 with Betsy Stover - right smack in the middle of the day so I’d be forced to get out of the apartment and be part of the human race again. And dudes, let me tell you, I was TERRIFIED for that class. Like brain-smushing, heart-stopping terrified. Like every single week I went to it, but I had such horrible stage fright I could barely remember my name. I was so terrified in fact that the first time I ever did a two person scene (with a girl named Cathy - Chatty Cathy according to our first improv warmup) my arm went completely numb. We did this scene about a daughter and mother who rode the bus together and I literally can’t remember anything about it because I lost all feeling in my right arm and thought I was having a heart attack and going to die. Thank god for Betsy, who is an amazing teacher, and after I told her how terrified I was, said, “Lots of us have been there, and you’re doing great. You know more than you think you do.”
And while I thought Betsy was perhaps an insane person to suggest I knew anything about anything, and despite relief that class was over, that it was over and now I would not die of a heart attack, I decided to move on to 201 anyway - despite my terror of the stage that bordered on phobia. There, still having no idea what the hell I was doing and pretty sure I might never figure it out, I was lucky enough to have yet another great teacher, Ari Voukidis, who told me that if things weren’t awesome right away, that was okay. “I remember when I first took classes and studied with Besser, and I could never make him laugh,” he said. “And I used to think to myself, maybe I’m not that good. And I don’t know how much natural talent I bring to this, but at least I work my ass off, and I love it. I really love what I’m doing. And I think that’s all it is. If you want it, and you love it, you’ll work hard and get it. Just don’t give up.”
It’s still the greatest advice ever, in my mind. The answer to everything; all I can bring to anything in life is my ability and willingness to try hard and work hard - and my optimistic hope that, in the end, my hard work will pay off or make a difference somehow.
So I kept going - with improv, money shuffling, unemployment and the gazillion hideous job interviews I endured during the year I spent jobless, each night sobbing on my couch like Nancy Kerrigan. ”Whhhhhhhhhhhyyyyy???”
But now, two years later, so much has changed for me - both externally and internally. My newfound confidence got me a job (one I actually like), which means I won’t have to worry about moving back into my old bedroom in South Florida. I also managed, somehow, despite all the insanity that went on during the year that would follow, including an illness that I thought would ultimately kill me, to work my way through the UCB program and graduate to advanced study (another thing I thought might never happen.) I’ve also had some of the most amazing teachers on the planet (holler at Shannon O’Neill, who challenged me to be more confident, and Kevin Hines, who challenged me to take risks and bring more of myself to my scenes, and Rebecca Drysdale, who is maybe the first person to ever say to me, “you’re doing exactly what you should be doing, and there’s a reason you’ve been through all you’ve been through.”) I also have a community of friends I never had before - people who make sure my birthday isn’t spent on the couch sobbing into my Office reruns - people who make me feel loved every day, all year round, and not just when it’s my birthday.
In the end I’m so grateful for everything - even that horrible evening two years ago when I hit rock bottom. Mostly because I’m not afraid to take risks anymore, and I’m not afraid of living in the moment anymore, and while I’m still a little afraid of the stage, that little bit of fear doesn’t stop me anymore. And I think that’s really cool.
So bring it on, 31. I’m ready.
(Also for cake. Bring on the cake.)