aspergers, improv, mental health, performance


I cannot initiate scenes for the life of me. I have way too many things swirling around in my head, and in order to get things out, I’d have to think ahead of time and plan out what I want to do and how I want to do it. That ain’t happening. This is improv. So, I go in, and I stay silent, usually performing some kind of enunciated action. From here, I trust that my partner will initiate verbally and give me a good chunk of material to work from by endowing or framing how a scene will function.

“Bill, you’re being impatient; you’ll get your turn at the buffet soon enough.”

“Mrs. Davis, we need to talk about your work performance.”

“Look at that big star rushing toward us!”

These are gifts. I can work with these. I can turn to my partner and not miss a beat. They can trust me to turn their gift into some kind of engine that will propel us into a fleshed-out and detailed scene. Without giving me some kind of gift, I cannot do my job, and I get stuck in my head wondering how I can get us out of this.

The same thing happens outside of performance. Unless I have practiced or reviewed something I want to say, I say the bare minimum because it takes me a long time to chew and process ideas, conversations, and basic social norms. Trying to hold up my end of a conversation is like pulling teeth because thoughts don’t process from head to mouth easily.

I remember sitting on this old thrift shop-y couch in a therapist office. He sat across in one of those faux-leather lounge chairs with my manila folder in his hands. I barely ever spoke because I never knew how to say what I wanted to say. Eventually, he asks me, “I’ve been wondering for a while now, and I’ve wanted to find a way to bring this up, but have you thought that you may have Asperger’s Syndrome?”

Asperger’s Syndrome, now linked/absorbed into ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) per the DSM-V, is a pervasive developmental disorder affecting brain processes pertaining to information. A person can develop awkward mannerisms, limited social engagement, specialized selective interests, heightened sensitivities, and strict in daily routines.

I almost laughed. Not by what he told me, but by the fact that Asperger’s sounded like burgers with asses. “Like autism? Are you sure?”

He nodded. “Some of the traits can be inherited,” he says. He reaches down and pulls out a bunch of papers, handing them to me. “I’ve printed out some research you can look over.”

I look at the papers. “Is there like an actual diagnosis?”

“I can make a recommendation after some further assessments we can do together,” he says. “But through your history and our time together, I’d say it’s certain.”

I nod and take the papers, shuffling through them. Thus, my first real-world exposure, outside of pop culture television references and movie characters, to the disorder and how it affects my everyday life. It explained a lot. It explained how I always felt on stage improvising. It also explained why I threw the biggest fit when my mother changed dining room tables when I was fourteen.

Because social arrangements are difficult for me to maintain, and because improvising off-stage in the daily world requires a higher level of concentration and mental taxation, I have learned to compartmentalize my social life into two categories.
The first category is mass and public communication, which includes performing in shows, giving talks, and socializing in big groups. They involve a lot of risk because so many others are depending on me to be able engage—something that I cannot drop the ball on. This gets me out of my head and up on stage.

The second category is relational—where I have the most trouble. Interpersonal communication involves less overall trust because less people are depending on me. I do not have to prepare myself as much and the social stakes are lower so I get into my head more.

It has taken me years of practice to cope with this. Playing games, improvising, speaking, and learning skills that help me remember key points in my head without losing track of how I want to say something. My brain says eloquent words, and then my mouth spits it out into pieces. Writing things down for group talks or discussions helps me keep track. Participating in exercises and improv workshops keeps me in tune. Performing with others keeps me loose.

This is where trust comes into play. I would not be able to perform well if I believed that my partner would not be motivated to move a scene forward. I expect it is vice versa with them too. I am sure this is the norm with other performers, but for me, I need strong initiations with some kind of loose “structure” to keep us on track. I don’t need the entire pie, just enough to oil the engine and get us rolling to where it is easy for me to fire back without thinking. Think of a steam engine. Think of the momentum it needs before it can move as quickly as it does.

Location + Relationship + Dramatic Action/Conflict + Attribution + Quirk/Personality Flaw + Physical Action + Name

Any combination of the list above can ensure a scene goes smoothly. It also keeps the audience engaged and keeps them from getting lost. Win-win situations for everybody involved. My not getting lost in my own head while on stage is key to a successful scene/show. I’m going to do my best to make this happen.

Everything I do boils down to two things when it comes to feeling more comfortable on stage: repetition and trust. Keep going to workshops and keep playing the simple word association and verbal games like word ball or free association circle whenever you can. Play them in the car with friends. Play them at work with your co-workers. Keep getting in front of crowds to alleviate your anxieties and begin developing a system that works for you and challenges you to find ways to overcome brain freezes. You are stretching parts of the mind that are so tightly wound, it gets exhausting to use them quickly, so keep stretching your brain. Over time, like many things, the thought process will become much more fluid and associating will become organic.

Most importantly, trust your scene partners. Keep them honest and true to themselves. Have them do the same for you. It’s tough going on stage in front of a group of people. Don’t make it harder on yourself by not trusting those around you. They’re here for the same reason you are. Don’t forget it.

I’m still trying to figure out how to get people to think I’m not as aloof as they think I am, but that’s a conversation for another day.