Were you ever The Pirate?

I’m taking improv classes. That’s code for, “I’m getting intimately familiar experiencing Shame, Failure, Embarrassment, and Uncomfortableness while other people watch.” Sure. I have fun and laugh too but usually when I’m watching my classmates.

To get more practice and build confidence, I left the safety net of my classmate ensemble and attended a drop-in class with strangers. Even though I didn’t know my scene partners, I assumed basic improv rules such as, “support your partner,” and “accept your partner’s offer as fact” would provide a supportive environment for my brave new world.

At first, the new experience went well. As class went on, however, my performance slowly drifted downward, and my confidence soon followed.

After a few flailing scenes, I attempted to enter a new scene as a nervous applicant applying for a job with a pirate. As I knocked on the imaginary door, my pirate scene partner ignored me so I knocked again. He still didn’t invite me in. He shot me instead. Before I even had a chance to speak.

The crowd loved it so he shot me again! “She won’t go down easy!” he said with a rowdy pirate accent as he got out his imaginary muzzleloader and shot me again.

Meanwhile, as everyone laughed, I laid silently on the stage feeling as though I really had taken shots to the gut. Not only did his lack of response to my knock seem to violate some basic rules of the game, but my lack of confidence left me without my own response. I completely froze.

When class ended, I fled with overwhelming feelings of embarrassment. The tight feeling in my chest told me this was about more than a reaction to an improv game.

In the days that followed, I heroically fought my inclination to look for reasons to blame The Pirate for not playing by the rules. I challenged myself to find the lesson and not make him the bad guy and to give him the benefit of the doubt. “He got a laugh. That must have felt awesome!”

I reflected on the times in business and in life where I have experienced a cheap shot or when I have committed the same act. How many times have I been The Pirate in a meeting and shot down an idea before the person had a chance to explain? Has my quick trigger ever left a colleague or a client feeling the way The Pirate’s actions left me?

And was my negative feeling really about getting shot down or was it because I lacked confidence in my skills? I mean, I’m not THAT bad. Did I actually shoot myself first? Was that the real source of my humiliation?

Several days later, with the life lesson in tow, I challenged myself to try again. I went to another drop-in class at a different improv school. And there he was. The Pirate.

At first he didn’t recognize me, and then as he remembered, he looked down sheepishly.

“I’m sorry I shot you,” he said apologetically.

By that time, I realized I too had broken the rules. The best response in a scene is usually the honest response: “What would a person really do or say in that situation?” I could have built upon his reality with my own.

“That’s okay,” I said. “If I were playing the game again, I would say, ‘What a jerk! I can’t believe you shot me before I even had a chance to speak.’”

After a brief pause he laughed, we took the stage together for some new lessons, and this time I was ready for him to shoot me again.

(Photo credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APirate_icon.gif)

Shelby Barnes

I'm Shelby Barnes. A communications strategist with more than 20 years of experience helping business leaders create and tell stories with impact. Mile 23 Strategies is my consulting company.

Seattle, WA