Punch the Bully in the Nose

In the last few years, I’ve become friends with professional actors and Broadway performers. How did that happen?

Sometimes I feel like I am watching my life on TV.

Emily Fletcher and Tonya Cornelisse, now dear friends, expand what I believe I can do.

Where did I decide to “expand”? By enrolling in improv classes!

I am proud to say I just completed my third class with the Philadelphia School of Improv! I am shaking my head as I write this. 

What was I thinking?

Yes, I can see how one thing led to another, starting with my interest in meditation. But it isn’t a simple series of coincidences. As I shared last week, I didn’t meet Tonya by accident. I brought my full self and my positive energy to the workshop where I pushed myself to go out on a limb.

In my last class, as we introduced ourselves, I was totally intimidated by how much experience Curt (another working actor!) brought with him. But that fear faded quickly. I found myself on stage, creating improv scenes out of nothing with Curt. Last week, this father of two young kids turned into my cranky teenage son.

Curt started the scene beautifully, like a pro, as he always does. He commits to a character like a mo-fo.

Curt grabbed a folding chair, turned it around, and sat down backward, clicking through channels on an imaginary TV.

Following his lead — just like Tonya, Curt is an ‘expander’ for me — I entered the scene with a strong commitment. I walked right over and turn off the TV, standing in front of it with my arms crossed and a stern look. Curt exploded in protest. The tension grew.

[Can we freeze this moment?]

If you are like me, just imagining yourself on stage like this scares the crap out of you. For me, that fear evaporated in the first minute of my first improv class. Now THIS is what scares me: standing across from a real actor going off in my face. It makes me feel like I’m dancing on a ledge, 20 stories above the pavement.

Starting the scene, I swept in on a wave of adrenaline, like a 2nd grader who strides over and punches a bully in the nose. I felt bold. The plan looked great on paper. Yay me! But once the punch was thrown... the lighting changed. Reality was different than I imagined. Once my little, balled-up fist connected with bully-nose, my nervous system did what nervous systems have done for millennia: beyond my control, I froze.

Not fight. Not flee. FROZE.

Imagine you’re out with your friends at the bar. You catch someone’s eye and next thing you know, you’re flirting with someone across the room. Innocent enough. Then they get up to come over to talk to you. As they approach, you either feel confident that you can follow through or… you don’t.

[OK, unfreeze.]

I suddenly find myself tangled in a father-son fight with Curt over the TV I just shut off and the chores he forgot to do. This is a problem for me. I don’t have professional training in acting so I have to rely on my own lived experience. But I wasn’t a rebellious teen. I never had these fights with my teenagers. And… I do my best to avoid these kinds of conflicts in real life.

I was totally out of my element. I had NO idea what to do.

I had stepped out onto the stage a confident man. I made a bold statement to start my scene. But when the scene hit the tension point, I stammered. I paused. I panicked.

All of a sudden, I was looking out through the eyes of a shy, introverted 10-year-old boy. He took over and said, “holy shit! I’m big! What am I doing out here?! Hide!”

The mature, experienced part of me became a facade. A living, breathing mask of I’m-here-but-I’m-not-here.

I flashback to when I was painfully aware of my body and its flaws. I had little confidence in anything.

At that age, ashamed of my body, I would hide in my room to change my clothes. No one was coming in but I was ready to dive behind my bed and cover myself in shame.

Back on the stage, the gap between my frozen facade and my 10-year-old self feels huge. I feel stiff and distant.

I see my classmates looking at me. I wonder, “Can they see me? Do they see the 10-year-old?”

No, they can’t. I can see their faces. They seem confused. They wait for me to respond to Curt. They wonder what’s going on. They hold all this confidence in me that I suddenly don’t have in myself. They still have faith that I will make a decision and tell them a story, even if it’s a story about my hesitation.

I snap out of my frozen state just long enough to remember what I’ve learned:

There is no turning back. The only way is through.

I turn my back to Curt, bend over, pick up my imaginary TV, and stride off. I solve the stalemate with my cranky teen by upping the ante on my parenting power.

Curt freaks out and jumps out of his chair yelling, “Aw! Come on!”

I don’t know what I’m going to do next. This time I'm not worried about it. I know I'll figure it out.

I turn around, cross my arms, look him in the eye, and smile.

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Robert Zeitlin