Not long after we moved to Canada, Sage discovered improv and fell head over heels with watching it. Many nights she’d go out to shows and after some time she invited me to see what she saw as an amazing and funny art form. I went and though I enjoyed it a little, there was one aspect that made me decide never to go again. There was audience participation. Sometimes they might go out to the audience and ask questions like “What do you do for work?” or “Where did you go on your last vacation?” What if I gave a stupid answer? Worse still, in some shows they would call someone up on stage to participate, moving improvisers around like dolls or being called upon to finish sentences an improviser starts like “I don’t want to go to the library today because last time I was there (audience member fills in the blank).” I wanted absolutely no part of that. There were so many opportunities for public humiliation!
In 2011, a project like 52 Adventures would have been inconceivable to me. My comfort zone was like a comfy old chair for me. It conformed to my body and fit me perfectly. And like a comfy chair, once I was in it I wasn’t motivated to get out. But Sage pushed me to take Improv 101 at a local improv theatre. The very first exercise was to stand in front of the class alone for a full minute just talking about the things you love, listing without stopping. “I love bikes, I love cats, I love walking in the woods, I love coffee…” and on and on. It was fun but also terrifying. We slowly ramped up from there to making up simple scenes with one another. A few months later I auditioned for one of the beginner teams and was accepted. For several months in a row I would perform every one to two weeks for an audience at a local bar. It wasn’t always easy. Some shows went poorly and I left feeling bad but I didn’t die of embarrassment as I had previously thought possible. When shows went well, though? That was fantastic. It made it all worth it.
In the mid 2010’s, I began studying Hindi and it was very slow going. Sage encouraged me over and over that if I wanted to learn more I needed to practice and to take opportunities to speak to others in Hindi when I could. If I went to a grocery store where people were speaking Hindi, I could just dive in also. But again, I saw it as an opportunity to look stupid, to give the impression that I thought they were obligated to help me practice, or worse to give the impression that I thought their English was terrible. And so mostly my Hindi speaking was relegated to the 2 hours or so per week I was in class at that time.
In 2016 I went to India for the first time and did my best to speak my, then pretty terrible, Hindi. I succeeded some but failed enough to learn that I also would not die of saying something incorrectly. In fact, sometimes those failures were better at making me remember things than anything else. To this day I still remember the moment in an autorickshaw in Banaras when I improperly said “for me” and the driver gently corrected me. (Hindi speakers who are curious: I said “mujhe ke liye” instead of “meri liye”). But the biggest turning point was when I was at the hospital visiting my first Hindi teacher for the last time. I was encouraged to speak Hindi to him loudly (as he had no hearing aids in) and as scared as I was to make a mistake, I just pushed through it. From then on I became increasingly less scared of speaking Hindi.
In 2019, when Sage and I were in Bangalore, Sage taught a workshop on storytelling and improv at Improv Comedy Bangalore. During it I got to see the improvisers improvise in both Hindi and English and a seed was planted. Though my Hindi was not good enough to join in at the time I thought that maybe someday it would be.
Last year I started thinking more seriously of doing it as my Hindi slowly improved. The idea was in the back of my mind as something I might try on my next trip to India – sometime post-pandemic. It was a nice, safe distance away. It would be like planning to run a marathon in 2025. It’s totally possible but so far out you don’t even have to think about training or how it would go. It was just a fun idea free of risk. And then my friend, Ken, sent me a message in Facebook:
My happy, fun, far in the future dream turned in to an event happening the very next day. I knew that I had to say yes to it because every time I take what feels like a big risk I feel good in the end and I grow a little bit too when that big fear drops off.
I don’t know what the jam will look like but my brain switches to high gear. Part of my mental processes are now switching to Hindi. What scenes might there be? What would be interesting things to start a scene about? What kinds of characters could I bring to the show? Full blown scenes are playing out in my mind as I work, cook dinner and brush my teeth before bed.
Then I lie down to go to sleep and my brain, ever helpful, decides to keep processing this. As I fall asleep, Hindi conversations are happening in my head. I dream of being on stage and performing in Hindi. When I use the washroom and go back to bed, I’m startled awake as my brain thinks “Wait, what is the word for ‘experience’ in Hindi? I can’t make the usual mistake I do of using the word for ‘example’ instead!”
I wake up the next morning barely rested, my mind still reeling in two languages. In the shower, another thought comes to me. “Oh no! What if we do short form?”
The improv I tend to do is mostly what is called “long form” which consists of made up scenes and situations. I decide when I step forward what character I’ll play and maybe a trait or point of view. I’m a firefighter who is obsessed with people liking him. When I meet my scene partner, they have done the same thing. Together we navigate the situation, justifying anything needed to put our two people together. How did my fireman end up sitting and talking to a lighthouse keeper who had been laid off after his lighthouse was automated? What do they talk about? Watch the scene.
The great thing for me about this is it is adaptable. If I forget a word, it can be because my character doesn’t speak the language well. Maybe I’m a toddler even. Any language failure is something I can justify as part of who my character is.
But short form consists more of games – like some may have seen on shows like “Who’s Line is it Anyway”. Games like a rapid fire categories game where one person points at people who have to name things from a category. The category could be something definable like “Dog breeds” or it could be something more challenging like “Imaginary brands of cereal.” Anyone hesitating is eliminated.
Another game requires at least two people. One of them leaves the room and the audience suggests a celebrity, a crime and a location. The person on stage becomes the criminal and the remaining players come in and “interrogate” the criminal hoping to eventually guess the three audience suggestions. As the investigators get closer to the answer, the audience makes “ooooo!” noises to encourage the investigators
So you can see, with this extra structure it would be harder to fake it through a language failure. I briefly consider skipping the session.
I tell Sage about my nervousness and she laughs and laughs. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she says. “They’ll be glad to see you there and you’re going to have fun.” Just an hour before the session I make the final decision to join.
Finally, on my lunch hour from work I log in. I’m really nervous.
There are a couple of people, Sachin the organizer and Puneet. Instantly after our introductions, which I started in English and then switched to Hindi I immediately felt welcome and comfortable. I was able to hold my own in Hindi and could both understand and be understood. This was going to be fine.
“Let’s get started,” says Sachin, “We’ll start off with a few short form games.”
My stomach drops like I’m on a roller coaster. It’s my worst nightmare. I totally understand why he chose this, though. In one’s mother tongue, short form games can feel easier than making up entire scenes and worlds. They’re simpler but more fast paced. We dive in with “Questions only” in which you and your scene partner can only ask questions. It’s fun but tricky and looks like this when done well:
The three of us cycle back and forth asking questions and creating a simple scene as we go. My brain is on high alert. In a normal Hindi conversation I sometimes have to stop and think either to process what was just said or try to remember a word. (“Wait, what’s the word for dangerous? Oh yes…”) This won’t work here. A few seconds is all I have. After a few times around, though, I’m comfortable. I think I can actually do this. A direct Zoom message pops up on my screen.
One more person, Aman joins. We finish the question game and move on to something harder. It’s a three way version of the Alphabet game. One person picks a letter to start with and then every person must start their line with the next letter in the sentence like this:
“I’m going to go to the store.”
“Just don’t forget to bring me my ice cream.”
“Kids don’t need any more ice cream”
“Let them have some fun for crying out loud!”
Well done it looks like this:
In our version we had four people and no set order – just keep it going. This one was a bit more difficult, made tougher by the fact that sometimes people called each other out with questions. There was no hanging back possible no matter how nervous I felt. That behaviour, putting someone else on the spot on stage is what scared me the most about even watching improv before. Now, though, it’s one of my favourite parts. It’s a way to get “in trouble” in a safe way and to enjoy finding your way out.
It was all good, though, and though I made mistakes I came away happy. And then it was time to move on to scenes with more natural dialog. In the first I played a kid in second standard who went to tell his teacher he wasn’t going to come to school anymore. His mom had said the teacher wasn’t teaching him anything, and besides she could teach him herself better at home and save on fees. In the second my roommate was upset with me as I ate all of his food from the fridge. I was happy to give it back to him but he’d have to give me some money to go to the store. Would our friendship survive?
After a couple of scenes, my lunch hour was over. It was time to return to work. As I said my goodbyes I felt really proud and pleased to have pushed through what was one of the scarier things I’ve done in a while. I was also amused to note the difference between how scary I’d imagined it to be – scary enough that I could literally lose sleep trying to mentally prepare for it – and how much fun and not scary it actually was.