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I learned what teamwork was yesterday. I also learned that gerbils will be the only ones to survive when the aliens attack your spaceship.

The first part looks like the first line of an after school special*, doesn’t it? The second part looks like this:

Harold the Space Gerbil.

Harold the Space Gerbil. Survivor.

But I digress. I learned what teamwork was yesterday. I finally understand what people mean when they talk about sports teams and trust between players. I don’t enjoy sports and I still struggle to understand why others do. It took a theatre and a stage to understand teamwork and trust. That stage would house a scene that involved among many things, a space gerbil named Harold, played by me.

I’ve been taking public improv workshops at Rapid Fire Theatre since June this year (with August off). (I mentioned one of my improv classes in this post.) Most workshops offered end with a “workshop show” where all the classes perform in a showcase for their invited guests and each other. It’s kind of like a graduation. It’s a great, supportive atmosphere where lame jokes get big laughs and the applause and cheering is very enthusiastic. It’s a wonderful way to gently dip your toe into performing if you’ve never done it before. It’s also a prime spot to take risks with your improv and if you fail you don’t have very far to fall.

Last night was my third workshop show, and it was probably the most comfortable one so far. One of the reasons was because I was in a small class and I had more opportunity to get to know the other people in the group. My previous two shows were larger classes (between 13 and 16 people) where I felt I could easily blend into the background. If I can blend into the background I naturally do, unfortunately. In this class of six, I had worked with the other performers at least a few times and got at least a very vague idea of how they liked to play. There wasn’t the time to develop the level of trust and comfort that troupes have with each other but, there was enough time to feel like you belonged in the group and that they had your back. We were all learning together and although sometimes we didn’t recognize the cues that others needed help, we were right there to help when we saw them. In fact, on stage all that instruction from class just seemed to kick in and we suddenly didn’t need all those reminders to jump in from the back line (where other players wait) and help out when necessary during scenes.

The last scene of our part of the show was a “Scene Paint” where two players go up, get a suggestion from the audience and describe the setting and environment for the scene. We received “Spaceship or Space Station” and proceeded to describe a strange spaceship up in space, divided in half by a black line where one half is very clean and the other is dirty and covered in potato chip crumbs. The clean side was given unpacked boxes stacked against a wall, and right at the end I added an empty gerbil cage. Then, other players jump into that environment and do a scene using the objects and tone that has been “painted” for them.

The scene went really well, I think. It’s very satisfying to see players using what you gave them and watch them twist a world into something you never would have thought possible. The two astronauts after bickering about their sides of the ship were interrupted by two aliens who were intent on taking over. The scene was winding down to a close when I heard “what about the gerbil… hamster?” from the host. I was still in the back line and up until now I would have faded back and waited for someone else to take that offer. I barely do human characters well, could I even be a gerbil? Animal characters are strange and physical and while I’m strange I try not to show how awkward I am physically.

This time, however, there was trust. The teamwork element of improv finally made sense to me. I acted as gerbil-like as possible, taking off from one side of the stage to the other making a squeaky gerbil-like noise. The audience laughed. One of the players held his arms out and I ran over, (apparently this gerbil acted like a dog) he put me in the only space pod and launched it. Harold the gerbil survived. The scene ended and audience applauded.

After the show, everyone headed to a local bar for celebratory drinks and discussion. Post-show energy mixing with my favourite local beer being available, I was in a really good mood. When we were chatting, one of the level one students complimented my class (level two) and said we were really funny. He said he didn’t know how he was going to do that when he went into the class. I assured him that he would be great; he had been good on stage and he would only get better with time.

In the back of my mind, something hit me and I realized how happy I was that he had said “your class” instead of directing the compliment at me. For the first time, podcasting notwithstanding, my goal wasn’t to be funny and noticed. It wasn’t to take the spotlight, it was to help my scene partners be as funny as possible on stage. That improviser complementing the team; not me, meant so much. I think I would have felt like I failed somehow if he had pointed to me directly and said that I specifically was funny. I was funny because of how the rest of my class reacted to the gerbil offer. I only took a risk at looking like a complete idiot because I was confident my team had my back. Teamwork.

You know how sports teach kids teamwork and how to be strong and brave and confident? Improv was my sport. I learned how to not waffle and how to hold a conversation, how to take risks and actually be excited to fail.
— Emma Stone

I scribbled this post up last night and then I found that quote by Emma Stone this morning. I had so many feelings but my words now feel somehow validated. Also, I’m not sure if the Space Gerbil was actually named in the scene but I felt Harold was appropriate. Points to you if you understand the reference.


*If you are of the generation that has never had the “after school special” let me explain. It was generally a made for TV movie, often low budget, usually using teenage actors that talked about topics relevant to teens. Social issues or current events like drugs, dating, friendship and stress were explored in fictional stories that would teach a (usually) conservative value. Don’t do drugs, be nice to people, don’t pressure others into doing things they don’t want to do, etc. They aired in that strange 3-5pm time slot when parents were on their way home and teens were already off school. Degrassi and Degrassi Jr. High are great examples of TV shows that look at these situations and offer a far more realistic and entertaining product while still having the same style. -goes back to telling kids to get off her lawn-

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