“Backwards Man: Does everything, including talking, backwards.”
I read these words aloud, sharing a brief grim look with my scene partner onstage.
The audience howled, wanting blood.
My university troupe and I were performing an improvised superhero movie-themed show. Backwards Man was our suggested hero for that night, invented by a cunning audience member.
We nodded solemnly once it became clear that this was the suggestion we had to use. The audience’s reaction made it obvious – and once the audience knows what they want in an improv show, there’s no going back. One of the cast confidently announced the beginning of the show as the rest of us took up positions on the sides of the stage. As the lights went down I exchanged a collection of glances with my troupe; a mix of gallows-humour grins and competitive frustrated sighs. One of us had to be the hero we all needed. Someone, for the next hour, had to be Backwards Man.
Improv is scary. Unlike in a scripted production, you’re forced to present many more aspects of yourself. You’re not a creative conduit to the ideas of a script or meticulous director; once the audience gives a suggestion, the rest is entirely on you and your troupe. Everything you as a cast do; the words you say, the characters you create, and the stories you tell are all invented by your brains right there and then. This makes improv vulnerable. But it’s this vulnerability that gives improv its excitement. It presents danger and risk, giving performances a natural theatrical tension.
In normal-day-to-day interactions we try to present our rational, calculated selves. This means learning to hide and suppress many aspects of ourselves – anything from our darkest illicit desires to simple quirks we’re not too proud of. The self we present has been curated and honed through adolescence. In some cases, it’s who we’d most like to be. However, there’s inevitably more to us. In the spontaneity of improv, the sides of you that are suppressed emerge. Your subconscious mind, normally kept on a leash, is able to run free while your conscious mind is inevitably overwhelmed.
To prepare for an improv show, you obviously can’t rehearse. Instead, you practice, in a fashion not dissimilar a sports team preparing for a big match. We prepared by performing practice shows to ourselves and working on our theatre skills. The goal was to hone our group chemistry; making sure our minds were all finely tuned to the same mental station. We wanted to make sure we could all immediately tell if one of us was walking onstage with a great idea, or, perhaps more importantly, with absolutely zero ideas.
I often had zero ideas. I was the least experienced of our cast: the superhero show was the first improv show I’d ever taken part in. As we practiced in the weeks leading up to the performance nights I primarily learned one thing; if you want to be funny, witty and inventive in an improv show, you have to let go of the urge to be all of those things. Those urges come from the calculated self; the part of you that’s worried about being embarrassed, how you look, what your friends are going to think, and whether what you’re doing is going to affect your chances of getting laid.
The subconscious self, on the other hand, just wants to play. Embracing this fact by learning to trust your immediate instincts and throwing your full energy into them is difficult – a difficulty that’s greatly exacerbated in front of a live audience. However, if you manage to let go of this fear and allow yourself to play, you’re immediately liberated: you’re free to be not just yourself, but something else.
It was in the second scene of the tale of Backwards Man that I first did this in front of an audience. I had sat and watched as a fellow cast member bravely embodied our backwards-talking hero for the first scene. Once the scene ended, I walked onstage with another cast member, whom I sensed was likely to play the villain of the story. In practice shows, I had often defaulted to dumb-muscle-protagonist; safe, secure, cliché. Instead, in that moment, I let go of myself.
Instead, I found myself embodied by someone else; the sassy, effeminate, high-status love interest sidekick of the villain (that night named Dr Chronos). For the next few minutes, it felt like I wasn’t acting – I really was this other person. I was not onstage, but in a lab, with a rather eccentric boyfriend who had been neglectful of our relationship. I was devoid of fear, or self-consciousness.
Paradoxically, it felt like the most natural thing in the world. The reason why cross-dressing, drag, or other things of this nature elicit such powerful reactions – whether it’s seen in comedy or serious drama – goes beyond the subversion of gender stereotypes and expectations. It’s powerful because it resonates with some deep part of us, oft silenced, that longs to be as liberated and empowered as what we witness onstage.
The scene that followed was terrific. My cast member and I had to pause after almost every sentence we said because of the volume of laughter we generated. It was my first taste of ‘killing it’ onstage. All it took was me getting out of the way.
In the years since that night, I’ve been all sorts of characters in all kinds of improv shows. I’ve been a pirate captain who fecklessly abandoned his crew to die on a deserted island. I’ve been a Roman-era suitor who wrecked marriages. I’ve travelled through time and space as a dinosaur. And by virtue of the totality of these experiences – the recollection of which feels almost as ethereal and fragmented as the recollection of a dream - I feel more whole. I feel I know myself better: that I’m in touch with the more hidden sides of myself, and know what will happen if I let them loose.
In the end, it emerged that Dr Chronos had botched an experiment, causing Backwards man to travel in time in the opposite direction to everyone else. Exploiting some elements of cause and effect, Backwards Man eventually defeated Chronos, heroically reversing time for everyone else so he could finally live a normal life again.
This piece was written as part of a writing course I took with Tim Kreider. He edited several revisions times, and provided invaluable feedback and suggested direction in the process.