Be very afraid."
That's more or less the core guidance to life I got, growing up, from my mother.
What appeals to me in improv acting is that it says, not "don't be afraid" (because we will be), but "work through your fear."
Or "fuck your fear," as Mick Napier advises in his book Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out, laying out his guidelines, as a director, to working actors:
"Make strong choices.
Fuck your fear.
We want to see your power, not your fear. Nobody has time for your fear. ...Take the powerful choices [you make] and utilize them in the show. If... [you are] coming from a huge space of insecurity in the first place...that's the problem right there, not the idea or character or anything. The more you approach a director or other actors in this needy manner, the more you will alienate yourself from the director's power and your own. [italics mine] If you find yourself in a show and you are afraid, then fake it. ...The best thing you could say to me in notes [on rehearsals] is, "I'll make another choice and we'll see if it works."
(The improv class I'd signed up for was cancelled, so I e-mailed the instructor if he recommended any reading, and Napier's is the book he suggested.)
Napier throws out the accepted Rules of Improv, saying what makes improv work is, basically, getting over your fear, getting over the impulse to protect yourself--both of which slow you down, drain your power, because they keep you thinking, not acting.
That's exactly what attracted me the first time I saw improv, a couple months ago: it was obvious the best performers were flying with their shields down.
Napier says that memorizing the Rules also encourages thinking on stage, which clogs up the improv gears, and anyway, breaking the Rules can make for good improv too. Good improv arises from committing yourself entirely to your character, so, for example, if your character is a nay-sayer, Rule #1 (say yes) isn't going to apply.
Here are some of his other guidelines for actors (not students--students get to act all hysterical and insecure he says, that's why they're still students) working on sketch/improv shows. They're about as good a list of checks and balances as I've seen. I mean, if you learn not to apologize (passive) and also not to interrupt (aggressive), that's quite cool.
Be someone who says, "Sure I'll try it."
Don't be tired.
It's actually okay to be tired;...just don't let tired be an excuse...get up on stage and be vital and engaging.
Eliminate these words from your vocabulary.
"Can't ".... "Should, and "ought to"––Use "could" instead.
Know what you're talking about [or shut the fuck up].
In rehearsals...if you don't really really really have to say anything, then don't.
If you have to talk, know what is being discussed right now, and have what you say be relevant to and only that.
Don't interrupt anyone at any time; if you do, apologize.
Don't read/lie down in a rehearsal.
Ask permission to give another improviser a note [feedback].
Learn not to apologize before presenting your work.
Present your ideas proudly. They are your creation; you needn't apologize for them.
Work in the present, not the past.
Jump on stage with enthusiasm.
Sit near others.
Not my mother's list of guidelines.
But I couldn't help but notice that extreme self-protection didn't serve her very well in the long run.
I'm going to keep playing around with other choices and see how that works.
[Movie poster from the 1958 version of The Fly. The "Be afraid" phrase is from the 1985 version, with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis.]