We Practice Bravery Here

September 2017 – by Jenni Lilledahl

I want to talk about improvisation, fear, and, ahem, bravery. That B word is part of our name and it’s the root of all we do here at the Brave New Workshop Student Union (BNW SU). In fact, we like to say we practice bravery here.

All of us will experience moments of mandatory bravery during our life journey. Moments when bravery is flung upon us and we cannot not act: you witness a car accident and must jump in to provide urgent care, or you suffer a life-threatening illness and the treatment regimen is grueling, or on a lighter note, your son asks you to jump in the icy winter water at Scout camp saying: “All of the other parents have already earned the Polar Plunge patch, Mom.”

Then there’s elective bravery. No one is making us do this and we can opt out, but something inside compels us to do it anyways: you’re at a new school and decide to do a speech in front of the whole class so you can run for student council, or a friend that you had a falling out with is sick and you hop on a bus to go make amends, or on a lighter note, you jump in to sing karaoke at your company holiday party (“Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” by Meatloaf. Really? And you’re singing both parts. Whhhyyyy?!).

But bravery paints only one side of this human painting. I was in a room full of school kids a few weeks ago and the teacher asked, “What is the opposite of fear?” “Easy,” one kid responded immediately. “It’s bravery and courage.” Fear is one of the most deeply rooted, physically and emotionally heightened (and sometimes debilitating) human sensations we experience. And possibly our most primal motivator. I’ve been teaching improv for 25 years and every single one of our thousands of students at the BNW SU has talked about fear at some point in their journey.  

I find it interesting that the language and descriptors we often use around bravery and courage depict images of jumping, falling, leaping, or stepping up, down, or out in a big way. We talk about taking a big action because we instinctively know the power that fear can hold over us:

“I’m going to go out on a limb.”

“Gotta jump in head first. Don’t wade in to get your feet wet first.”

“Go for it.”

“I’m going to put myself out there.”

Sure, there are some of us who fear snakes, or flying or needles. Many of us fear speaking in public. And nearly ALL of us at some point in our life have feared sharing our ideas, sharing our voice and putting ourselves out there. We fear that if we share our true selves we’ll be rejected, humiliated, and told NO. As usual, there is wisdom of the ages to uncover here because the Latin root of the word courage is COR or heart. Yes, by sharing your true self your heart is courageous and brave. At the BNW SU we call this bravery of vulnerability. It’s an elective life course and improvisation is a fun, supportive, undeniable way to practice sharing your voice, eventually feeling more and more comfortable doing so.

If you think about what we do in improvisation (discover ideas, find solutions, and create stories purely from imagination in the moment), you can feel the bravery in it. We have no scripts, no props, no specific assignment to simply check off the boxes. We only have our individual ideas. Our own words. Our own body and movement. Pure raw creativity from our very own selves. We have no choice but to share our true selves, our CORWe’re a bit naked out on that limb and our only choice is to DO something. So we jump.

We practice in simple ways, but in a very intentional and undeniable container (culture) of support. We jump in over and over and over again, practicing that muscle of the first step beyond fear (off the cliff, out on a limb…). We do this through fun exercises that challenge our minds, bodies, spirits, and everything has a foundation of fun. And then we CELEBRATE, support, and say yes to every single brave moment. When it comes to pure heart, there’s no wrong way to do it. Every student is reminded, “I Am Brave!” by practicing the action muscles of moving beyond fear over and over in a safe, fun, and engaging space.

We have another interesting reason around here for talking about jumping in and being brave. Bravery is rooted in our beginnings and part of our 60-year history. Brave New Workshop founder Dudley Riggs grew up in the circus. Before he left life in the three rings for the stage of comedy, satire, and improvisation, he spent many years as an aerialist. In his recent book Flying Funny – My Life Without a Net, Dudley said: “The flying trapeze remains the most graceful, romantic act in the circus, and after many years of flying, I’m still a little astonished when I see someone else performing in a great flying act. People are afraid of the unknown. Most people have a fear of falling. But flyers need to believe that is a learned fear. We don’t climb the ladder in fear: Gravity is a known constant – gravity is reliable – always there to power my swing. We aren’t nuts up there; we do have respect for gravity.”

Indeed, facing our fears is not nuts. We all own a bit of bravery and it’s what makes us human. I’m looking forward to next weekend when I’ll be teaching an improv breakout session titled “I Am Brave: Declaring My Voice” at our Improv for Life Jamboree on Saturday, September 30 from 1-4 PM. It’s a free event and it’s an elective by the way (wink emoji). So everyone is welcome to jump in and play! Register for your free ticket today.

– Jenni Lilledahl is the co-owner of the Brave New Workshop Theatre (along with her husband and co-improviser John Sweeney), president of the BNW’s Student Union (school of improvisation) and co-founder of Gilda’s Club Twin Cities.

Be Brave. Do Improv.