Don’t be the ‘Asshole’


by Jenny Rowe


…ironically, I failed to write it the first time, but I re-committed and added a ton of enthusiasm so now it’s here.

So I suppose that’s an improv lesson right there.

This is a slightly embarrassing foray into my improv journey, focusing on something I bring up with new improvisers whenever I meet one who has the fear and feels like they’re failing. Because they’re not. At least, only if they let themselves.

I was lucky enough to meet Susan Messing from Annoyance Theatre in July and she summed up an improvisers journey like this:


I’ve just fallen down the rabbit hole of joy!
I’ve done 3 years of training and I’m worse than when I started
Thank god I’m getting better, thank god I’m getting better, thank god I’m getting better…..
Why am I the SAME?

Well for one whole year, I thought I was right there at the bottom – I thought I sucked –  and because of that I probably DID suck. I clung to the sides, I never started a scene, I played dogs and sheep and furniture and scene-painted (all of which I still LOVE to do now) and I pretended I was just the one who did the funny side characters and that was acceptable. But what I was actually doing was NEVER REALLY COMMITTING to a scene because I never put myself in a position where I really didn’t know what was going to happen next, or, if I did, I lazily let my scene partners guide me. I’d lost the fun of it all, I was thinking too hard and I was trying to project what might happen in a scene before it happened. I was worried about missing the game-of-the-scene and ruining things for my scene partners and I could never think of a premise so, really, what use was I on stage? All this happened because I thought I was a failure; I thought I was a terrible improviser, so I was afraid of getting it wrong and mucking it up for everyone else.

For nearly a year I struggled and pretended and sunk into the gunky pool of improv-self-loathing and the quagmire of angst, waiting for someone to tell me to leave. Luckily at some point, and I can’t remember exactly when, I realised that I wasn’t having fun and I wasn’t contributing anything fun to the group. Susan Messing might have had this to say about the situation:

                                 “If I’m not having fun then, I’M THE ASSHOLE.”


Example of a joyless ‘asshole’ (UK:Arsehole) 

Well, with that in mind, I was definitely the arsehole, and who wants THAT role? Not me. It was make or break and I knew I couldn’t live without improv, then or now.

From that point on I started to read more about improvisation. I took more interest in what other people were doing; I’d been so wrapped up in my own worries that I hadn’t been noticing other improvisers too much. Gradually, I started taking more risks, gradually I got better at premise and games, and realised that many of the improvisers that I admired and whom I had thought walked into scenes with amazing ideas were actually going in with nothing at all, they were ‘pretending’ to be confident, they, too, had improv angst!! (Perhaps not to the scale that I had experienced, but the mere fact I wasn’t alone was enough to put me back on track).

Not only this, but I realised that I had skills that other people envied too. I may not be so good at rolodexing or rhyming, but I AM good at character and emotion and knowing when to stop adding ideas into the pot.

I still struggle with my improv confidence, I often find myself clinging to the sides instead of stepping in, but the more I learn (and do it) the more I realise that EVERYONE feels like that sometimes, and the job is to keep playing, keep having fun and never stop learning.

  “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” 
? Winston Churchill

At the Annoyance intensive this year, the teachers taught me – more than anything – that failing in improv, doesn’t have to be failing. If you accidentally do something odd, out of character or out of place it may feel like a fail, but if you commit to that ‘failure’ – or justify it – it stops being a fail and starts being a pattern or a game or just bloody funny.

What I had lost in that horrible year was that we do improv to find JOY and if you’re not having fun then quite frankly you’re doing something wrong. Because it’s all fun, sometimes it’s scary fun but mostly it’s just fun (even if it’s dark, sad or evil) because we are playing.

I’ll leave you with one more thing from Annoyance, I forget who said it, but it resonated with me:

       “Fail because of choices you make, not choices you don’t make.”

If you’re reading this and recognize yourself in any of this, don’t give up, because you WILL get there. Oh, and remember – don’t be the asshole.


Not an ‘asshole’ (JOY!)

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  1. Fantastic article Jen…. you’ve summed up a lot of my feelings. Just been on the SpyMonkey workshop and that is all about commitment too… the importance of giving it 100%, whatever ‘it’ is, simply cannot be overated. Thank you so much for writing this.

    1. Just great Jen. Any endeavour benefits from this dive-in approach – artistic, social, romantic, exercising, dressing yourself, house-decorating. I’d like to read more musings and soul-bearing of this calibre.Keep it coming & impro your way through life. xx Peta

  2. Brilliant blog Jen. I see a lot of myself in this! x

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