Let’s pretend

“Hi, my name is Becca, and I like to go ‘Eeeee!'”

I crouched into a ball with my arms wrapped around my head and continued emitting the high-pitched noise as 14 strangers studied the less-than-subtle nuances of my movement. This was the first exercise of the Sacramento Comedy Spot’s most recent improv jam session, a variation on the “name game” in which everyone takes turns reciting everyone else’s name and re-enacting its accompanying wacky gesture.

Any drama coach will tell you that improvisational acting is about being in the moment and cooperating with others, but who are they trying to kid? As far as my ego was concerned that night, improv was about being funny on demand so everyone else would think I was cool.

Frankly, I didn’t think I had it in me. I felt far more nervous than witty in my silly crouching gesture, with all eyes on me, so I jumped back into a standing position. As I did so, a burst of spit flew out of my mouth and hit me in the eye. Stunned, I blinked awkwardly at the men and women in the circle.

“And then I spit,” I joked, trying to pass off my projectile drooling as perfectly acceptable first-impression behavior.

Thankfully, the man next to me jumped in and took the focus off me. He rattled off the names and gestures of all the people who had already gone: “His name is Dan, and he likes to go ‘Boomba boomba!’ His name is Paul, and he likes to do the snake. Her name is Becca, and she likes to go ‘Eeeee!’ and then spit.”

Ugh. Possibly the only thing worse than spitting in your own eye while introducing yourself to a group of people is having to watch as each of them re-enacts the event. This is improv, folks. Anything can happen.

For example, I soon found myself shaking the proverbial moneymaker while chanting, “Big booty! Big booty! Big booty! Aw yeah!” In a fast-paced game called (what else?) Big Booty, every participant was given a number that he or she had to shout whenever someone else called it, without breaking the singsong rhythm of the big-booty chant. Any hesitation or mistake meant everyone had to be re-numbered. After just a few rounds, it became almost impossible to remember my number, let alone hold on to any trace of self-consciousness.

I wasn’t sorry to see it go. Shyness is of no benefit in improv, and the sooner you shake it, the more fun you’ll have. As children, many of us had no problem approaching other kids we didn’t know and making up games together, but it’s all too rare to encounter such openness as adults. Beyond the honing of acting skills, the true gift of an improv jam is simply getting to play.

Sure, some participants may have more theater experience than others. (On the night I attended, I saw prominent local actors and seasoned Comedy Spot performers mixing with first-timers and dabblers ranging in age from grade-school kids to senior citizens.) Fortunately, the unpredictable nature of improv leveled the playing field.

Jesse Jones, that night’s facilitator and a founding member of the club’s house troupe, Free Hooch, made sure that all attendees—even the shy ones—participated in each of the half-dozen games we played. That explains how I ended up pretending to be the old woman who lived in a shoe at a party or a disappointed mother nursing her son through a Christmas Day hangover with stale fruitcake, and how I found myself clapping for singing lepers, creepy voyeurs, naked pool guys, football-playing ballerinas and the dozens of other characters we created that night with nothing but our imaginations.