I teach improv to adults ages 20-70 at the Groundlings Theater, where I am also a writer and performer in the Main Company.
What that means is that at the end of each session I am in the position of sitting face to face with another adult and telling them “You move up a level,” “You must repeat this level,” or… “Sorry, this place is just not for you.” And although I am much kinder than say, Simon Cowell, it’s kind of a similar process.
Our culture is OBSESSED with TV shows that mirror exactly the Groundlings process. (hopefully without the drama.) But it’s all the same. Each show whether it’s The Biggest Loser, America’s Next Top Model, The Bachelor, Cupcake Wars, The Amazing Race, Survivor, Top Chef, Ru Paul’s Drag Race (I mean there are literally thousands, right?) end with a contestant being VOTED OFF. Told to “Return immediately to the house, pack your belongings and get on the plane.”
Or the Catch Phrase made famous by this guy…
For some reason America loves watching these shows. And although you might think it would be “Fun” to be in the “power seat” in the situation, to me, it’s not.
I’ve been through the process myself. Every single Groundling has. It’s a difficult process and very very few people make it to the end. I myself was told to repeat a level on my journey. I experienced nights of crying myself to sleep. And worked so so hard (while of course experiencing the joy and elation that comes along with persuing your dream and eventually achieving it.)
But in my every day life I don’t achieve the dream every day. I don’t get the part more often that not and it’s hard. But nobody does.
So I take my job as a teacher extremely carefully. I revel in pride when I get to tell a student they are ready to pass on to the next level, and I feel their pain when they are told they aren’t.
Today was particularly rough.
I had a student who was just not ready. Perhaps they could make a wonderful stand up comic or maybe one day they will win an Oscar. Seriously. But they were just not ready to be an Intermediate level Groundlings student.
“But what if I…” he said. “I could do this, I could do that… PLease Please Please.” “My last teacher promised me!” “I’m better than so and so, how can you do this?” “How can you do this to my dream?” “My friends at home tell me I am the funniest person they know!” He said. And then his sadness turned to anger and his eyes grew steely cold. He hit the chair with his hand and said, “This is so F-ed up!!”
I was a little scared. But I understood.
I also know that in life you don’t always get what you want. This student was more concerned with moving up for the sake of their ego than really learning the craft. The ART, if you will.
It just isn’t for everyone.
I could, for example, take a painting class. I guarantee you I could be a great student and listen to everything the teacher taught about painting theory and how to mix colors or hold a brush but I will never be a great painter.
Improv is an art too.
And maybe this person will blossom at another theater. I tell my students that we are all like seeds and we just need to find the BEST SOIL to GROW in. You can try and try to bloom in a particular soil that you THINK is best for you but you’ll never blossom. And there’s fertile soil somewhere else just waiting for you to plant yourself in and take off…
Anyway, it’s a weird role to have, to be the “Judger.”
So feeling a bit bruised from my encounter today I will plant my seed in the perfect soil that is Steve, Ned and Roan who always greet me with open arms and allow me to be the best I can be.
I can only wish that everyone finds their own best soil. Sometimes it exists in the places you least expect.