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Getting Vulnerable in your Performance

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

Over the last few years, I've seen the focus of my improv change drastically. Someone asked me what was the catalyst and I had to really sit down and think about it. Honestly, I don't think it was one thing or one moment that propelled the change. But I feel more satisfied when I leave the stage or a zoom room by opening myself up to a truthful and authentic performance.

The pandemic took a hold of me in a way I could have never imagined. Having had previous issues with upper respiratory health, I was terrified of the prospect of Covid, knowing that I would not have an easy go at it. So, I self-isolated with my Dingles Dogs and Dudes for many months. It was a time of reflection and loneliness despite being in an active household. Mentally, I struggled to find my footing as fear seemed to loom over me. I threw myself into improv and acting with a ferocity and pace that wasn't sustainable. Online, I assumed a persona that looked light and effortless. All the while, inside I felt the tightening and insecurities taking over and the exhaustion from doing too much.

Be authentic, I taught in classes. Be open to reacting, I had said that so many times. Be vulnerable, I challenged others, But I wasn't being any of those things. Finally, after months - instead of fighting it, I embraced the roller coaster of emotions and begin to channel them into character work and improv performances. I'm not sure if I'm a better improviser because of it. I don't believe you can quantify the quality of your performance. However, I do come away from improv sets with a feeling I hadn't before. I'm not sure exactly how to explain it but sits somewhere between emotional exhaustion, elation and satisfaction.

When I was growing up, I remember hearing the phrase "put your cards all out on the table". I'm not a gambler in the traditional sense, but I think as improvisers - that's exactly what we are. We know the game, we're given the circumstances and we place our bets with our scene partners. There's a skill to that. There's luck to that. There's an exhilaration to that. But to really play the game, you have to add vulnerability. For many, that's too personal of an ask or they don't know how to access it. For me, the change came from a phrase I heard in an pre-pandemic acting workshop.

In 2019, I had the privilege along with my fellow instructors to take a two day intensive acting workshop with Vincent D'Onofrio. If you don't know who he is, google him and you'll be astounded at his body of work. D'Onofrio is perhaps the best character actor of my generation. He is a classical trained actor and instructor at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York. And he reached out to my studio and offered to teach us for FREE while he was in town filming the Eyes of Tammy Faye. Over the course of two days, we dug into monologues with each of us going one at a time. Vincent sat on the stage less than two feet away as we delivered our first attempt. A looming figure at 6'4", he moved closer once your finished. Grabbing your hands in his, he made eye contact and breathed with you and began to walk you through an experiential and layered performance.

I was last to go, not by choice but honestly, that would have been my choice. I was terrified, nervous and excited. My peers had only seen me doing unscripted work and now I was going to put myself out there with an intense monologue from When a Man Loves a Woman. A personal monologue from me since I'd been in recovery for 20+ years. I did my first run through and couldn't remember half the words but the tears and emotions overflowed. And then he got close to me and looked at me in a way I'll never forget. He held my hands, he held my gaze and then he helped me access myself as an actor in a way I had never allowed myself before. He said "listen to your heart and your tummy!" What are they saying? What are they feeling? Sit in that! Allow them to override your brain. Forget the words. He added an exercise that brought laughter through my tears and allowed me to be vulnerable as a performer and as a person. It was transformative.

I've held on to that feeling, I've shared that and I've embraced that in my performances.

I love to play characters and escape from Karla. I've said that for 30 years. But over the last few years, there's so much more of Karla in these characters. You get a peek behind the curtain of who I am. My fears, my insecurities, my self loathing and my failures are out there on display for the world to see, thanks to live streaming. For someone who has never felt beautiful or worthy or talented enough, that's huge progress. Putting myself out there when I'm not even comfortable in my own body or with the reflection in the mirror is the most vulnerable thing I can do.

But I don't do it alone. The support I have received from my teammates, both virtually and in person allows me to go there. They create an environment that fosters me and pushes me. The trust I feel with the folks I've been playing with is something new for me as well. In truth, they've had my back through this exploration and evolution. I know I'm not the same player they started with (or maybe I am), but they say yes to my journey in scenes and as a performer. I can not thank you all enough.

As my friend and duo partner said recently, sometimes you just have to go FULL SWAMP and that's what I plan on continuing to do.

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1 Comment

Jill Flyer
Jill Flyer
May 09, 2023

I hope you know by now that ALL of your students think you are marvelous as an actor, as an improviser and absolutely as a teacher. You are simply the best.

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