Why Is Improv So Scary? Part Five: "I don't trust my fellow improvisers"

Did you think just because it took me 12 weeks to write this post that I’d forgotten?

No way, crème brûlée.

We’re back with “What Makes Improv So Scary?” and it feels like we never left. This week, we’re looking at our second-to-last improv-related fear: I don’t trust my fellow improvisers.

I approached this topic in the most scientific way possible. I set a timer for one minute and wrote down all the qualities that would make me not trust a person. Here’s my list:

1. Beard
2. Huge belt
3. Eye patch
4. Sunglasses
5. Bouncy red hair
6. No teeth
7. Growly voice
8. Scary dog
9. Cowboy hat
10. Soot on face
11. Cigar
12. Fancy cufflinks

Let’s hope I don’t meet any unshaven swashbuckling chimney-cleaning bovine-herding robber barons with poor dental hygiene and auburn curls.

And let’s hope that if there’s someone in your improv class that you don’t trust, it’s not because they look like an Agatha Christie villain. 

Trust is important in an improv class because improv requires us to be vulnerable. If you don’t believe that your classmates want you to succeed, it’s tough to bend your elbows behind your back and pretend to be a rooster in that scene about Old McDonald’s farm. It’s even tougher to react honestly and emotionally in that scene about a divorce.

When you were growing up, your parents told you that “trust is earned, not given.” (Remember? They said it right after “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.”) I think your parents are totally right. But they forgot the second half of the saying, which is, “Trust is earned, not given, except in an improv class.”

An understandable error, but a costly one – now you’ve spent time in improv class waiting for strangers to earn your trust instead of making the choice to trust them, just like you’d choose to say yes in a scene.

Not only does improv require us to trust, it requires us to actively choose to trust. This choice between trust and distrust makes an improv class into a little game theory petri dish.

What’s game theory, at its simplest? Watch this terrible, heartbreaking video to find out:

For those who couldn’t take the suspense, here’s what happened. In this game, two people are given a shared pot of money. Both must make a choice whether to split the money or take the money. If both choose to split, they split. If one chooses to split and one chooses to take, the money goes to the taker. And if both choose to take, no one gets any money. So the choices of both parties affect the outcome, and both may strategize to try to get the optimum result. The woman convinces the man to split, then secretly chooses to take. (Shorter synopsis: This lady screws this guy over hard core.)

Now, here’s what happens in an improv class. A dozen people walk into a room. Each has two choices: to trust or not to trust. If they choose not to trust, they’ll stay safe. No one can embarrass them during a scene because they never gave their partner that much control. They'll negate and deflect and avoid being thrown under the bus.

If they choose to trust, it won’t always feel good. They will have moments when they feel unsupported. They will have moments when their scene partner walks out and says, “And now ladies and gentlemen…Ms. Mariah Carey,” gesturing for them to imitate the singer. (That was me. I did that. I can’t remember who I did it to but please forgive me.) But they’ll also have moments of honesty, vulnerability and connection with their fellow improvisers that they would have missed otherwise.

If everyone in class chooses not to trust, it might be a long eight weeks. If everyone in class chooses to trust, you will play without fear, become a better team member and walk away with a better understanding of your new friends. The choice is yours.


What if you choose to trust and then your fellow improviser robs you of a fortune that could have put your children and grandchildren through college and secured the future of those you love into perpetuity?

Then better luck next time, I guess. If only they’d been wearing an eye patch and fancy cufflinks.