Experimenting with Fear

What scares you?

What makes you feel sick to your stomach? Break into a sweat? Stumble over your words? Shake in your boots?

We all have fears.  Even the most outwardly confident, secure, calm, cool and collected person has something that brings out a feeling of dread in them.  Most of the things that scare me the most, I luckily rarely encounter in regular, everyday life: giant snakes, deep bodies of water, towering heights, and wobbly, narrow bridges.

I couldn't bring myself to walk out on this terrace in Italy that jutted out over a cliff - the view was straight down!

But there are plenty of other things that conjure up the word “fear” for me.  Things that make me feel uncomfortable, anxious and nervous.  Things that may come naturally to some people but make me oh-so-scared.

One of those things is a fear of improvising.

Improvise:  to make, invent or arrange offhand.

I have no problem speaking in public when I am prepared.  I have spoken at conferences and taught classes without the least bit of angst.  I work in major gift fundraising, a profession that requires me to make a gazillion cold calls, schmooze with influential donors and work a room like a pro.   But as much as I can be at ease in those situations, at other times I just get stuck.  My stomach quivers.  I stumble over my words.  My knees get a little shaky.

Confession: I hated classes in law school in which professors used the Socratic method.  I dreaded not knowing when I would be called upon to answer a question and then being put on the spot.  Even if I knew the answer, I got so nervous, I rarely gave the best response possible.  I never wanted to be a litigator because I hated the idea of having to think on my feet while being questioned by a judge.

I absolutely dreaded walking across this bridge in the Colca Canyon.

“And I’ll sit and wonder of every love that could’ve been. If I’d only thought of something charming to say.” – Death Cab for Cutie

Similarly, I often fear being put on the spot in social situations – especially when I’m talking to attractive members of the opposite sex.  I start feeling the pressure to come up with something interesting or witty or funny to say and I get overwhelmed and totally freeze.  My ability to make or invent something offhand – to improvise – completely fails.  And then hours later, it will come to me – the perfect thing that I should have said but just couldn’t think of at the time!  (So cute, funny guys out there that I’ve met in the past – I wasn’t giving you the cold shoulder, I was just too nervous to come up with something wonderfully charming to say!)

Despite all this (or likely because of it), when an email popped up in my inbox in January from my friend Saya about a crazy project of hers called Fear Experiment, I somehow signed up without a second thought.  Fear Experiment is:

21 people who can’t dance and don’t know each other

20 people who can’t improvise and don’t know each other (that’s me!)

1 choreographer

1 improv teacher

14 elementary-school students

1 show at the Park West in front of 700 people (yikes!)

If I had taken the time to think about it, I probably wouldn’t have signed up.  As soon as I paid to confirm my spot, I started having my doubts.  What was I getting myself into?  Could I really do this?  Am I crazy??

Our group of wanna-be improvisers

For over a month now, I have gotten together with nineteen other would-be improvisers and an improv veteran who serves as our “coach” every Monday and Thursday evening, a total of five hours each week.  I would be lying if I said it wasn’t incredibly intimidating or that I wasn’t close to tears by the end of our second rehearsal.  There is nothing like trying to do something that you already think you’re horrible at to bring out every insecurity you’ve ever had and magnify it by a hundred.

Why put myself through this?  Why risk making a complete fool of myself in front of 700 people?

To expand my horizons.

To bring out my creative side.

To meet new, like-minded people.

To challenge myself and face my fears.

To hopefully have some fun in the process.

So far, so good.

Getting to know each other on the first night.

Slowly but surely, rehearsals have gotten better – not necessarily easier, but more enjoyable and not as scary (although I still have the occasional shaky-knees moment).  I’m learning about heightening and expanding and not thinking, just doing.  Instead of shying away from volunteering for a scene, I find myself jumping at the chance to get on stage and practice some more.

It helps that this group of strangers has now become friends. We’ve bonded over beers, food, going to improv shows and even singing karaoke!  Our motto is “keeping it stupid” – a reminder that we should not be afraid of sounding stupid or looking stupid or doing something stupid when we practice or perform.  Granted, that is easier said than done sometimes, but I think it’s something that applies well to life in general.

With just over a month to go until our performance, I’m actually feeling pretty okay about it.  And speaking of our performance…

Warming up at our first improv rehearsal

Warning: the shameless self-promotion section of this post is below:

If you’re in Chicago, I hope you’ll come out and show your support at the Park West on Saturday, April 9th.  I can’t guarantee you’ll be entertained, but I can tell you we pretty much spend 99% of our rehearsal time laughing hysterically – hopefully you will do the same!

Tickets are $24 each and can be purchased here.

If you can’t make it to the show but still want to support the project, visit Kickstarter before March 11 to $1 or more – awesome rewards are available in return for your pledge and the proceeds will go to cover various expenses for the show.

To learn more about how Fear Experiment began or if you’re interested in participating in the future, visit the Fear Experiment FAQ page.

And stay tuned for a full wrap-up of the experience in mid-April…

Photos: Rich Chapman

9 thoughts on “Experimenting with Fear”

  1. Kudos to you for doing this. A few years ago, I took a public speaking course. One of the things we each had to do was dress up in a wild outfit and sing a song in front of half the class (probably about 50 people). Terrifying doesn’t begin to cover how I felt, but at the same time, I’m still proud of myself for doing it, because whenever you face your fear and come out on the other side, you grow.

    As an aside, small world–I work in Development, too.

  2. Good for you! I’m afraid of heights and looking at that first picture or just thinking about it gave me a queasy stomach.

    I should take some skydiving or bungee-jumping lessons Not! I’m not quite as brave as you are, so great job!

  3. Good for you! You’re brave. You know what I’m afraid of (besides spiders)? NOT having to do improv. In other words, if I have to wing-it or whatever, I am so on, but if I have to say, recite a poem or read something straight from the paper, I totally tank, my voice shakes, I feel sick, etc. The whole nine yards. SO, what I’m trying to say is, three cheers to you for facing your fears!

  4. Good for you! I’d be scared to try something like this, too, although improv has always fascinated me. And what better city to take the plunge and take an improv class than Chicago??

    1. Oh it still petrifies me! Just ever so slightly less than it did a month and a half ago! 🙂

  5. Hi Katie. Great job facing your fear. I look forward to hearing about the show. I did an 8-week improv comedy course in New Orleans a few months back and I absolutely loved it.

    – Niall

  6. What a cool post about Fear Experiment! You really captured the feelings involved with stepping outside of your comfort zone, while also explaining the benefits of it – which I think is the reason we’ve all signed up for this crazy project!

    Looking forward to seeing the Improv side of Fear Experiment! Lots of love and support from one of your new DE friends! 🙂

    1. Thanks Cary! Can’t wait to see all you dancers perform as well! And I think a big group celebration will be in order once it’s all over… 🙂

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