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Improv can be scary. French improv is scarier.

I thought I was a pretty fearless person, but recently, when I had the chance to take part in a French improv practice group, I found a new level of empathy for what ESL students and any newcomers to improv must feel like.

• Unsure, unconfident, awkward, exposed…

Equipped with nearly 20 years of improv and a basic handle on the French language, I thought I would be up to the challenge of participating in a French Improv Practice group.

The games we played included "Five Things” where one person lists a category and chooses another person to quickly name 5 things that would fit into that category. I was feeling good. This I could manage. This was fun and nerve racking in a good way. Playing on the edge of my memory of French vocabulary and haricots verts.

I didn’t always understand exactly what had been said when we started playing "One Word Story", and was worried that by the time the next word got to me I wouldn’t know where to take it. (The part of me that always wants to get it right, freaking out.) But I dug deep and remembered, I’m just responsible for this one word. Stay present, listen keenly, say the next thing that makes sense and isn’t forcing anything, and is moving the story along. One, word, at, a, time.

I tell my students when we play this game that we are all working together and making the story make sense. If someone says a "wrong" word, we are all responsible to helping it to make sense.

That is the magical part. When you feel the support of the group making what you said important and you doing the same back.

And it’s a fun place to be.

• It can feel empowering and creative and freeing.

• Free to make mistakes and survive it.

• See that it was no big deal, in fact it sparked another thing that is fantastic!

This is what radical collaboration is, this is what psychological safety provides.

Part 2.

Moving from self preservation to team preservation.

I was a bit nervous and meeker in the beginning of the class as I squeaked out an introduction with my name in French. It would be the first time I’d used it since my trip to Morocco last summer and before that, who knows how long it had been. I felt a bit unsure and unconfident, feelings I no longer have in an English language improv situation.

We moved on to scene work and I felt myself holding back from jumping up to go in the first pair. Not my usual M.O. (I'm usually the first one up.) I finally went up third, pushed up my confidence and strode onto the “stage” and we began.

And then I immediately didn’t understand some basic things that were being established. Like, where we were and what we were doing. It’s important to have agreement on these things to move a scene forward together. My mind froze. I could think of nothing except random French phrases that had no business in the scene. Like, “put that in the garbage”, or “put that on the table” or “it’s raining like a pissing cow.“

I felt so in my head and it’s empty. I remember the importance of eye contact with your scene partner and looked at Adrian’s eyes to meet sympathy and understanding. Thank goodness. He repeats what he said and I still don’t understand, I feel time slowing down and hear myself muttering, euh, euh, euhhhhh over and over with a French mannerism that feels out of place. I blacked out and don’t know if anything I said made sense or what the scene was about.

Is this what my ESL students or what newcomers to improv feel like? I had a deepened empathy for any resistance in anyone against trying an improv class. In a heightened state of self-protection, we focus on protecting ourselves and forget about others. I see this in creative teams where one person is hiding in the back and not throwing out much needed "stupid ideas" that could inspire something amazing and perfect.

During French Improv Practice group, trying to make up things on the spot in a language other than my native tongue was mind-boggling. There were so many moving parts and parts that needed my focus, it was hard to be truly present—being in front of native French speakers trying not to embarrass myself with my poor French skills, listening to understand what was said, translating it into English, thinking of what I wanted to say, translating that into French, and then not finding the words. It was so hard! I felt myself rushing to fill in the silence, another feeling I don’t usually have when performing improv. SLOW DOWN I heard my inner side-coach suggest.

I see a connection to the common challenge of selling work to clients, lack of confidence and feelings of overwhelm. Going in for the first time with the big clients and hoping that the work doesn't get rejected.

As someone who has been doing improv for nearly 20 years, I forget what it’s like to be a beginner— to feel tentative, to feel worried about how I will look and sound, to want to say something that is funny but my mind is empty, to want to say anything and my mind is empty. To want to fill the empty silences. To be more worried about myself than serving the group and the scene.

What I have come to not just know, but understand is that improv is a kind of language and a lot of it is nonverbal. Things like emotion, body language and space work (miming for lack of a better way to put it) are universally understood. And if you were present and tuned into the other players you could uncover what was going on without understanding or able to speak English. You could create and build something together without speaking the same language.

Thru improv you can discover your strengths and your weaknesses and work on them at the same time, one at a time, or any variation of that. Do I go back to French Improv Practice Group? While my French would surely improve, I think my improv would improve as well. Strengthening nonverbal communication skills for both understanding and communicating, while getting better at parlais-ing francaise.

Conclusion: I would return to the French Improv Practice Group.

Take Aways

-It feels good to take risks and stretch myself.

-emotion, body language and actions transcend language.

-clarity is kindness.

-it’s okay to slow down and take your time.

I love to bring this work to creative teams that need an injection of confidence and cohesion. If you are a team leader, let's talk. Book a consultation here.

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