Anyone can do this.
For ten years, I was fiercely loyal to an improv theater system that, by design, was never going to be loyal to me.
I invested my entire self-interest and emotional well-being in doing right by the theater, and in finding success on their terms. I believed that I was part of a community. What was good for the Magnet would ultimately be good for me, if I would only just be patient.
I gave the best years of my life to a theater, instead of giving them to myself.
When you first fall in love with improv, it’s a truly beautiful thing. Those first feelings of true discovery, of completely surprising yourself with your actions and your words coming out before you have the chance to consider them, of putting your complete trust in your scene partner, my gosh, there’s absolutely nothing in this world like it. It’s like accessing a part of your brain you didn’t know existed. You know this feeling, too, it’s something akin to, “I want to do nothing but this for the rest of my life.” It is why we’re all here. Improv is magic.
Improv is unique as an art form, because, honestly, you only need to be alive in order to do it. And that’s how it’s sold, too. In free drop-in classes, that’s the sales pitch: “Anyone can do this!” You believe it, because it’s absolutely true. You sign up for a Level One, you take it, and you’re hooked. You sign up for another class, then another, then another. Somewhere around your third or fourth class, the message changes from “Anyone can do this” to “Anyone can do this, but not you.” And you believe that, too. They’ve been right so far. They’re probably right about me.
The longer you stay in the system, the more limited you feel. You start off in Level One feeling like you can do anything, and you wind up in higher level classes feeling like you can’t do anything right. But you’ve already given this so much time, and so much money, you’re in too deep, and the non-improv part of your brain that craves the ladder of success starts to kick in. You keep trying, surely if you just keep working at this, if you just want it badly enough, they will want you. Maybe you apply to higher level classes and you don’t get in. Maybe you ascend to the final level and you don’t make a team. Maybe you do make a team, but once it’s gone, you never get back on, no matter how hard you try or how much you want it. Maybe you get to be on a bunch of teams, but when you bring them the project you’re really excited about, they don’t want it. “But not you” can also look like “You, but we decide how.”
By the time this happens, whenever it comes, you have given so much of yourself to this place that you don’t know where the theater ends and you begin anymore. That’s because, at some point, a switch happened without you realizing it. At some point, you stopped declaring your love for improv, and started declaring your love for the place you were doing it.
This switch is a curious thing. In a way, I suppose it makes sense: improv is ephemeral, humans have an inherent discomfort with ephemera and the undefined, they need to draw lines, to put things in a box, to transform the abstract into the concrete. People also have an inherent need to belong to something greater than themselves. The types of people who fall so deeply in love with improv are also, not coincidentally, generally the sorts of people who have struggled with belonging at various points in their lives. I know because I was one of them. These theater allegiances become a point of pride for people, a badge of honor that one can wear as a mark of self-definition. It is no longer, “I’m Kelly Buttermore, and I’m an improviser.” It is instead, “I’m Kelly Buttermore. I do improv at the Magnet.”
And that’s what I said, for a very long time. Listen, I moved to New York when I was 22 because I wanted to write for Saturday Night Live, that’s why I started taking improv classes at the UCB. Yes, I *did* fall in love with improv, and it did change my life and alter its course, inarguably for the better. I came to the Magnet from the UCB because it felt like a place where I might belong, where I might fit. And for a while, it surely was that place. What I didn’t realize at the time was that by putting my deep-seeded need for acceptance and belonging above my own personal ambitions, I was essentially putting down a security deposit on a life and a career that I would rent but could never hope to own.
And that’s the bait, and the hook. That’s how they got me, and that’s how they kept me. By believing that I was a member of a community, by feeling like I belonged, I believed that I had a stake in the theater’s success. I felt proud that I had been there since the beginning, as if I had gotten in on the ground floor, as if that meant something greater. Surely, as one of the theater’s initial stakeholders, when this place broke through, went public, if you will, I would be one of the first to reap the benefit. I felt assured that, although there were moves and decisions made that I strongly disagreed with, that if I simply waited it out, if I was patient and loyal, that patience and loyalty would eventually be rewarded. Meanwhile, the goals that had brought me here receded farther and farther into the background. I never put together that sketch packet, for example. What was the point? What I had at the theater sure felt a lot like success. But what had I really done, for all those years? I’d sacrificed my own ambitions - ambitions that were strong enough to make me move to New York - to carry out someone else’s vision. I told myself that the place had made an investment in me, and I owed it to the theater to stay. I went to work (literally) for the Magnet, when, the entire time, I had a million dollar idea in my very own pocket.
That million-dollar idea was From Justin to Kelly. And you know what’s crazy? I begged the theater to take it away from me, to put their stamp of approval on it. We both did. And it was only when they didn’t, when they let us get to a certain point but no further, that I realized what I really had and why they didn’t want it: I had something that was inarguably, undeniably mine. They wanted something that was theirs, that could sell classes.
We spent months trying to get them to realize that what we were building was beautiful, different and special, that it had rekindled a love for the art form that had brought us here in the first place. That what we were creating was not only the best improv, but actual theater. “Why doesn’t this improv theater seem to care that we’re doing really good improv?” we said to ourselves. It’s because they didn’t create it. And, because they had said to Justin, “Anyone can do this, but not you.” And they had said to me, “You can do this, but we decide how.”
Gratitude, patience and loyalty. All fine qualities for a person to have. In this particular context, they were qualities that gave all the power to someone else, not to myself; to a system that, by design, needs to make you think you’re not good enough. If you inherently believe that you’re not good enough, you will keep spending money to take classes. And you will be patient. And you will perform for free. And you will feel grateful for the opportunity to do so.
Loyalty to a system can only take you so far when that system is never truly yours, and never was to begin with. I say all of this without bitterness, and without apology. I had to give myself over to this system to realize that I didn’t need it, to realize that I could be strong outside of it. I also have people in my life that are the reason I came to this realization. Without them, I would still be there. I probably would have stayed another ten years. I would say that I am lucky to have somewhere to go, and I am, but more than that, I created my own opportunities. From Justin to Kelly doesn’t need to belong to any theater, because it belongs to us.
I also do not want to lie to you. I really wish I were 28 right now and not 34. In prioritizing my own comfort, I lost a lot of time that I cannot get back. All I can do now is make every moment matter. Since I started doing that, it changed everything for me. You know what it feels a lot like? Improv.
Why do so many advanced-level improvisers long for the halcyon days of Level One? Because that’s where we learned everything we ever needed to know. Listen. React. Agree. That’s all that ever mattered. Improv is inherently, deeply beautiful and powerful. Being part of a system can make you feel like that isn’t enough in and of itself. It is enough. Trust me. If you don’t believe me now, keep reading this blog, and maybe you will.
Anyone can do this. Especially you.