This week I’m in Maine with my family, and I took a yoga class at the local Y. I didn’t know what to expect, but I assumed it wouldn’t be a very advanced class. I was right. The teacher, a middle-aged woman with a refreshingly curvy body (refreshing because let’s face it, it can be disheartening to take classes from women who look like Cameron Diaz), led us through 30 minutes of gentle stretching, followed by about 20 minutes of sun salutations and standing poses, and then 10 minutes of relaxation. In my classes back in New York, there’s no stretching, and anything like a warm-up is done in about 120 seconds. It was so refreshing to be gentle with myself, to relax, and let my challenge be letting go of stress, versus the physical challenges of an advanced class. In other words, it felt great to be a beginner. I’ve been so inspired by the experience that I’m planning to start taking basics classes again when I get back to the city. I always loved a more gentle flow, but somehow, after all these years of practicing, I thought I belonged in intermediate level classes. I think I was wrong.
I wrote about the idea of going back to the beginning shortly after I moved to New York, when I was facing an improv scene in a new city. I talked about how humbling it was to have to take Level 1 improv classes at UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) after performing in DC for almost 5 years (you have to take UCB classes before you’re eliglble to audition for the theater). I was genuinely excited at the prospect of being new again.
But I have to tell you, on the improv front, being a beginner again has sucked. I’ve felt like I’m in stasis, unable to progress with my craft. Mostly, I think it’s because I’ve had such a hard time finding people to perform with up here — so much depends on chemistry. But also, the style of improv UCB teaches just doesn’t feel inspiring to me.
Then, the other week, I took an improv workshop with Kevin Mullaney, the former artistic director of UCB who now lives (and performs) in Chicago. He was back in town for the Del Close Improv Marathon. His workshop (3 hours/day for 4 days) was like a breath of fresh air. His curriculum was very simple, and was focused around core improv skills like agreement. He gave us a lot of opportunities to flex our muscles and create scenes, and I felt this latent part of myself coming back to the surface — the part of me who’s an actress, not just a comedian. Oh, how I’d missed this style of improv, where you use emotion and character to get into a scene, instead of just ideas, ideas, ideas. It was the kind of improv I’d practiced in DC, the kind I loved. I felt like I was coming home again.
I was happy to be a beginner when I was doing something I loved. And I think that’s it: When you’re doing something you love, going back to basics means letting yourself fall in love with it all over again. That gentle yoga class reconnected me to the feeling I had when I first started practicing yoga — the pure, restorative relief. Ditto the Mullaney workshop: I was discovering the joy of improv all over again, of losing myself in a character, connecting with my scene partner and discovering our scene together. The UCB experience hasn’t clicked because I don’t love the kind of improv they do. I’ve been a true beginner there, learning a new style of play, and it hasn’t been rewarding because at the end of the day, that style of improv just doesn’t inspire me.
Not all beginnings are joyful.
I’ve been in New York for about a year and a half at this point, and I feel like there’s part of me that’s just exhausted. Spent. I wrote about the feeling here, on Tastee Pudding, the blog I started right after we moved. Looking back, I wonder why I stopped writing that blog… it was good. I subsequently started several others, before deciding to just blog here on amandahirsch.com. That’s a lot of discarded beginnings. I think sometimes, the thrill of a beginning is addicting. The rush of creation. The hard part can be sticking with a thing, seeing it through.
Then, of course, sometimes you stick with a thing, and you wish you’d cut bait earlier, because it’s all wrong.
There are no right answers, really. All we can do is keep trying. Stopping, starting – holding on, letting go. Like a yoga practice, we move mindfully, we breathe, and we do it again. Like improv, we make it up as we go, we commit hard to our choices, and then we make new choices. And over time, we make a life.
Part of me wishes I’d cast my lot with a different improv theater here. It’s not too late, and I know I’ve learned a lot from UCB, even if I haven’t enjoyed it all that much. But I so miss being on stage… I’ve got a new indie team, and we’ll see how it goes. I just feel frustrated that I haven’t made more progress on this front in a year and a half. The Mullaney workshop taught me, I’ll never make progress if I’m not inspired. Follow the inspiration.
What’s something you’ve started lately? Something you’ve stopped? How do you feel about those decisions?
See also: My friend Christa writes about beginnings on her blog, Christa in New York.
The photo above is by Flickr user Doug Ellis.