Flying trapeze and improvisational comedy are like chalk and cheese, yet oddly, learning the former has helped my skills in the latter. I performed improv for a number of years in my early career while working at a theme park. It was the best job one could have landed immediately after uni — I had creative freedom, I formed great friendships, and I felt like I made people’s day more memorable through interactive entertainment.
After a long break from performing, I started improvising again a couple of years ago. I thought I had enough experience under my belt to undertake a different style of improv with ease. The style of improv I do now with Big Fork Theatre is vastly different to that which you’d see in theme parks. Of course, thinking on one’s feet is an essential element to doing any style of improv, but the long-form Chicago style I perform now requires much more skill. Years of previous improv and acting certainly helped me, but I can honestly say I never felt like I was doing very well in the Chicago-style improv; there were some things I hadn’t yet grasped properly. As with many life situations, I knew what I needed to improve but I wasn’t able to change because I didn’t have the sagacious awareness required to make those changes in my performance. That was until four months ago when I started learning flying trapeze.
My motivation for learning trapeze was different to why I do improv — I wanted to overcome my fear of heights and strengthen my core — but I’ve learnt several parallels between the two activities that have helped me become a better performer on stage. Here’s what they are:
What do you get when an acrophobic climbs a ladder onto a narrow board 10 metres above the ground? A person gripped with fear. And you thought I was going to tell a joke, didn’t you? It certainly is no joke when you are that person, especially when the wind is threatening your ability to hold on tightly. This was made worse when the instructor on the board told me to stand with my toes over the edge and lean out as far as I could to grab the bar. 'Could he tell me to do anything more oxymoronic?' I thought to myself at that moment. Seeing that I was having a mind struggle, from within the harness belt the instructor tapped the back of his hand against the small of my back and said, “It’s okay. I’ve got you.”
I’ve. Got. You.
Only three little words, yet they hold so much power. So now every time I hear these words on the board, I know I can lean forward for the bar — beyond what my brain tells me is safe —and have absolute faith I won’t fall off because someone has my back. These three words also give me confidence to jump off the platform and attempt tricks that would make my back surgeon shudder in horror. Why? Just as the person on the board ensures I don’t fall off, I know the person on the ground is watching me like a hawk, ready to pull the lines on my harness so I don’t crash and burn.
Now let’s flip back to improv. Just before we go on stage, we look each other in the eye, pat each cast member’s back and say, “I’ve got your back.” This signals the end of the warm-up and is a very important part of our routine. Basically, we are saying to each other 'we are ready to perform and no matter what happens on stage, I know you won’t let me crash and burn and I won’t let that happen to you either'. Until recently, this has been a meaningless ritual for me. But since experiencing the physical side of this philosophy in trapeze, I start improv scenes with absolute confidence knowing that a fellow cast member WILL come to my rescue should I need it.
You might be thinking, well this one is a no-brainer. And you’re right, because you need good listening skills for everything in life. However, when I was created something must have happened to make listening absent from my skillset. Someone can be telling me something and I’ll stop listening mid-sentence; it’s embarrassing for both the other person and me.
I’ve had to learn to listen in trapeze, for failing to do so is detrimental to the catcher’s safety and mine. But it’s not just about listening; it’s developing the skill of responding immediately after the instruction has been voiced.
Listen, respond. This is also the sign of a skilled improviser. Learning this skill in trapeze has helped me listen better during improv performances, otherwise I end up railroading scenes.
There are times I feel like I nail a trapeze trick, but when I climb up to the board to do it again I can’t pull it off quite so well. Maybe it’s the wind, maybe my response time differs, or maybe it’s my body feeling fatigued; there are so many uncontrollable variables. There is also one particular simple trick I keep trying over and over again but can’t seem to make it work at all. It can be frustrating but it’s something I’ve learned to accept and keep going.
Since improv is an art form that is completely made up on the spot, some shows will have the audience in tears of laughter from beginning to end, while other shows might only get a few light chuckles. Trapeze is teaching me to accept these situations. I can’t control everything on stage and I certainly can’t control the audience’s reactions. Most of all, what I’ve realised is important is the audience’s journey and mine.