A couple of years back, somewhere in the Finnish Summer, I met a Dutch improviser that had everything Dutch: tall, loud, whitty, and somehow pretty direct. I quickly fell in love with him, because he happened to also be kind, smart, friendly, and vulnerable.
This improviser is Johan Hoekstra. He lives in the North of the Netherlands, in Leeuwarden, and is part of a group named Man met Snor.
After a bit of sharing about vulnerability, what it means to be vulnerable and talking about modern masculinity, we decided to start a short correspondance through letters. We sent each other letters, old style, to talk about this topic. I will be sharing these here at the rythm of one per week, hoping for it to inspire people to talk more about what they feel, what they fear, and open their hearts around.
PS: As we just realized we don’t have any picture together, here is a very serious picture of Johan.
Credit photo: Lieuwe Terpstra
Letter 1 - from Johan to Gael
How are you? All is well here. It has been too long since we caught up on life in improv and a recent situation is prompting me to really dive into the subject of vulnerability in the improv scene. Let me explain.
When I was at IMPRO Amsterdam in January of this year, I spoke to Paula Galimberti right after her show. I did one of her workshops earlier that festival and I already held her in high regard. During that conversation from one improviser to another, she told me she had been struggling with her ego during the show, feeling that her show partner was getting more laughs. She told me that she needed to change her mindset mid-show, to not be bothered by those thoughts.
Now, I am sure we have all felt similarly or at least experienced an emotion comparable to that one. What really amazed me is that she was so frank about it. I loved that. No pretense about playing an awesome show and being an all-round improv Rockstar. No. Humility and the courage to voice her insecurities.
I’m not saying that we all should start sharing everything, but I do get the feeling that we may be pretending that everything is fine all the time.
Then again, this may just be me and my struggle against my own improv insecurities, which are plenty. But before I even start getting into that, I’m curious; is this something you struggle with at all? Or am I projecting my own insecurities on the scene as a whole? Are you ever insecure about a performance, either on or off stage? Do you worry -as I do- about people liking who you are and what you do on stage?
I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter. Looking forward to receiving your reply.
Letter 2 - from Gael to Johan
It was with an immense pleasure that I read your letter. It feels very good to receive news from the Old Continent while traveling, and even more from a friend. I am currently in India, and life here is going well as we enter our third week in the country.
Your question is extremely valid and I could not have phrased it more accurately. I, as most of us, am a social animal, thriving and seeking for confirmation that my work, my ideas and my personality is fitting with what the world is expecting. When I say the world, I mean my world, the world of the persons I chose to respect and to surround myself with. But sometimes also the world beyond these, the world of the anonymous judgment that we imagine when we find ourself alone in front of the washroom’s mirror in the middle of a party after an evening of show.
Our art is the art of pretending, the art of showing off, the art of faking that we know perfectly what we are doing. The side-effect of mastering it is the struggle to share our insecurities. Improvisers are known to fail with ease, to play with the fire and step into the discomfort of exploring new fields every show. But the reality is that we learn to pretend, better and better. And sometimes too much, probably.
Personally, I face a lot of insecurities on different levels. I struggle with the person the community can see in me, as I have the feeling to be inadequate and insignificant for some of my fellow improvisers. I fear to be underestimated and forgotten, to go through the time when I can explore and share, and to eventually be considered seriously when it is ‘too late’ for me. I feel insecure on stage most of the time, as I surround myself by extremely talented people, that shine on stage and let a clear memory of their performances. As I teach, I feel the safest, but every workshop seems to be a test where my ego put back everything on the table under the judgment of its success.
All that to say that you do not project your own insecurities, but that they are well present. Chris Mead, from London, wrote a beautiful blog article about the question of jealousy, very connected to insecurity to me. You poked my curiosity: what are these insecurities you are talking about and that you feel?
Also, what are the habits we could change to show more vulnerability and share more of our insecurities in the improv scene, and especially in the professional community? I think being more open about it could improve the wellbeing of most of us, and lower the level of judgment we still have for ourselves. But how could we encourage that in practice?
I am looking forward to read you.
Letter 3 - from Johan to Gael
Thank you so much for your thorough response. All is well, even though it has been nothing but rain for the last couple of days here in the Netherlands.
I am sort of relieved to find out that you struggle with insecurities both on and offstage. Which, in itself, is an internal response that is part of my own insecurities. As you may well know, I look up to you as an improviser (and human) ever since that ridiculously good ‘Fraltons’ performance in Finland, and somehow it is comforting to know that your ‘heroes’ have fears and doubts as well.
I’ve just finished reading the article by Chris Mead you mentioned in your previous letter. He hits the nail right on the head. It is good that improvisers are sharing these things, especially the ones that people look up to. What I liked most particularly and, coincidentally already a tactic I have been applying for some time, is complimenting other players on a job well done. I noticed that it felt good when other people complimented me (big surprise there) and I saw an opportunity to make other people feel good about their performance. It would obviously always be a sincere compliment, not just for the sake of making one to heighten my own visibility. Even though I’ve meant every compliment I’ve given, I do recognise that I’ve probably been more eager to compliment the people I look up to.
This brings me to the next point, though. If I feel I’ve played a great show, but no one would walk up to me afterwards to say they’ve enjoyed it, I may start doubting the show in retrospect. To be honest, this rarely happens, but it’s a delicate balance between being happy with who you are and what you do on stage, versus the fact that you play to entertain an audience. Do we play to entertain an audience or to have fun ourselves? Both, I think, what do you reckon?
Anyway, I think the improv community can only benefit from openness and honesty, people like Chris and Paula, and us, perhaps. This reminds me of the first time we met in Finland in a bar a couple of years back. You were hanging at the bar and you just so happened to turn around the moment I walked by and asked with honest interest: “And who are you?” Your sincere inquiry started a conversation. So, I guess I am trying to say: keep on being you, because you’re doing a great job.
As I am finishing writing this letter, the Covid virus has struck and I do not know how long it will take to reach you. I hope you are well.
Letter 4 - from Gael to Johan
I first would like to apologize for the awful delay since I received your letter. I have been myself preoccupied with the virus, facing a world-wide pandemic during my world-wide travel. We are now safe and sound back in France, and I have a bit more time to dive in this topic again.
I love this memory of meeting you for the first time in Finland. It was a very special festival for me, for many reasons. We were performing the Fraltons for the first time, with the pressure to ‘better be fucking great’–as our performance moved because of me leaving the festival early– and it was the beginning of my first tour with Laura (my partner on- and off-stage). Your very kind words about it and about me are very heart warming.
I remember feeling a pretty quick connection with you during the Finland festival, that got deepen in Barcelona later that year. You always seemed to have an opinion or an interesting thing to say, without it ever feeling like bragging. And I could observe last Summer during the intensive week I taught with you in the cast that you are willing to be vulnerable, honest and kind with people. It makes me think that kindness is a form of vulnerability. I myself struggle with that and at times remind myself that I have the ‘right’ to be kind to people without it being ridiculous or judged. Especially with improvisers that tend to fool around a lot and to be connected through humor, sarcasm or silliness to others. I’m afraid to be judge if I’m not tough enough or fun enough.
Which connects, I guess, to what you mentioned in terms of shows. I definitely have that same struggle to find a balance between seeking for recognition from audience members and peers, and living for myself when I do my art. I think we are playing both because we viscerally need it, and for the audience. We need, though, to determine who we choose to be our audience. Is a show full of inner jokes made for improvisers a bad thing? Not if the players are aware of the audience they chose. We should probably learn better how to choose, because it will allow us to give more or less importance to certain types of feedbacks.
This whole exchange of letters and talking about vulnerability launched me on a new project, that I will explain to you soon, when I will be able to work on it, so for that and for the good reading, I want to thank you very much.
I am looking forward to meet you soon again, and be able to laugh, to cry, to perform and to doubt, to feel together.
Check the other letters navigating right and left from the letter.