Improv class preps writer for Holy Day repentance

I thrust my arms into the air in a victory sign and proclaim, "I failed!"

I say it with abandon, as if I want the world to know I just won a Pulitzer. In fact, I spend much of the day publicly announcing my shortcomings. "I blew it!" "I messed up!" "I made a fool of myself!"

I'm just following directions. At the beginning of the one-day improvisational comedy class I'm taking, we're told that every perceived mistake we make during the lesson should send our arms skyward in jubilation. "Today we're celebrating failure," my teacher says, adding that often the greatest successes come from what we view as our worst flubs.

But while we are directed to rejoice in our creative missteps, we are told not to label ourselves as failures. "I failed" is OK. "I'm the biggest loser this side of the Mississippi" is not.

At first, I shift uncomfortably in my seat. Celebrate failure? Ever since I was old enough to understand that what we do and how well we do it affects our place in the world, I've striven to perfect the art of perfectionism. As my fellow perfectionists know, this can translate into much self-doubt — and little free time. It's not always the easiest way to live.

Sitting in a gymnasium at the San Francisco Circus School, I am not only being asked to suspend this model, I am being asked to risk humiliating myself in front of a room full of strangers. I'm both tantalized and terrified by the idea. As the day progresses, however, I begin to see that my teacher's philosophy of failure as a portal to success may hold real merit. There are moments in improv class when one of us freezes in fear only to awkwardly trip into a hilarious bit about monkeys taking over a library or rock stars accidentally eating dead mice.

My improv class comes to mind as the High Holy Days approach. I love these holidays for their weighty emphasis on reflection and new beginnings. Yet self-examination and repentance can easily send me into a self-critical tailspin: I should have done this. I shouldn't have said that. When it comes to chewing over errors, I usually don't abide by a statute of limitations. Forgive others? In a second. Forgive myself? Not so fast.

But this year, along with repenting for the ways I could have been better to others, I'm planning on making a Rosh Hashanah resolution to repent for the ways I could have been better to myself. Taking a cue from my improv class, I'm going to focus on the idea that many of my perceived failings have led to important and enduring lessons.

I took the class because I want to learn to feel less self-conscious and more spontaneous (or, alternately, become the next Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and as the class progressed, I discovered there is much to be garnered from this immensely challenging art form. As is so often the case in life, there are no scripts. One has to react quickly and extemporaneously to what others are doing and saying. In addition, thinking too hard can destroy a creative impulse. Often, the best material emerges when one stops trying and just lets what's inside find its way to the surface.

In class, we stand in a circle. One at a time, we are to create a character. One person turns into a thick-drawled dairy farmer, another morphs into a Valley girl. I'm so busy trying to plan who I will become that I barely enjoy the unstudied brilliance of my cohorts. My turn arrives and nothing comes out of my mouth but a few nervous "ums." I go blank. I start wringing my hands in a stressed-out Woody Allenesque kind of way. "That's your character," my teacher urges. "Go with it."

So I do. And somehow, probably because it's rooted in truth, this exaggerated version of me under pressure works. "I loved your character," the teacher says as I put on my coat and head for the door. "That was your best moment."

I walk out of class feeling joyful and unburdened. Allowing myself to confront my self-consciousness, embrace imperfection and pretend to be a muscle-bound surfer, a spoiled kindergartner and a presidential spokesperson has made for a wonderful day. It's one I'll be thinking about during the High Holy Days this year.

Of course, my fellow congregants needn't worry that I'll throw my arms up and declare a celebratory "I failed" during the solemn incantation of al cheyt. But secretly, I might just be doing that in my head.

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.