|I was a sad, anxious little kid. It may surprise the people who know me now to hear that when I think back to the first years I can remember, I think of alienation on the playground, mind-numbing amounts of mediocre network television and terrifying nightmares at night. That’s not to say I didn’t have a happy childhood. I did. I had loving parents, doting siblings, a big house filled with toys surrounded by acres of land to explore. My world was stable and trauma-free.
(See! Happy Shana, Happy Childhood)
I think much of the darkness of my childhood had to do with some unspoken staples of childhood: the vividness of my imagination, the lack of control over my circumstances, and the awareness of the dangers of the world. I was reminded of this the other night when my three year old son was opening up about his own fears, the ones that have made it hard for him to fall asleep at night lately. “I’m afraid of my imagination. That my imagination will come true. I’m afraid of the dark. I’m afraid of shadows… monsters.. powers.” and the list went on and on. Even mentioning things that delight him in the daytime turn frightening after hours. I was so touched by his openness and I also knew exactly what he was talking about. I remember feeling the same way: tormented by my imagination. It’s why I never understood watching scary movies. The horrors of the world, combined my imagination, generates enough chilling content for a lifetime. I don’t need Chucky to help me out.
(The stuff of my nightmares)
This is part of the reason I am so skeptical about nostalgia: the fond look back at a happier, simpler time. I don’t buy it. Being a kid is super hard. You have to figure everything out. Like everything from what’s the sun in the sky to how do I feed myself with a fork. And no one takes you or your work seriously. That’s why I always get choked up at the end of “Everywhere Babies” by Susan Meyer
“Everyday, everywhere babies are loved for trying so hard, for traveling so far, for being so wonderful… just as they are”
It’s incredibly hard work. And yes, you get to take naps and someone cooks and cleans and dresses you. But if you were an adult that had to learn all of those things, someone would take care of you in the same way. Because it’s a full time job learning how to be a person.
The good news is, I got to grow up. And I became happier and lighter. I changed schools, of my choosing, and shocked myself by becoming a bubbly person. Me? The sarcastic little tomboy? I got older and spent time on my passions: theater, soccer, and school. I went to college, worked hard and had a blast. I started to support myself, begin my career, form lasting friendships, surround myself with the people and activities I wanted. Basically, I think being a grown up kicks ass.
And the monster-sized imagination that once tortured me is now one of my greatest assets as an improviser. It’s something that I can harness for deep play and mostly control when it gets out of line. This is also why I balk when people start taking improv classes and say they feel like a kid again. I think doing improv as an adult is way better than as a kid. And I’ve taught improv to ages two to eighty-two.
Living in Austin, these conversations filled with nostalgia are ever-present. Austin has changed for the worse, people say. It’s basically Dallas. It will never be what it was like when we had The Electric Lounge/Les Amis/Dog and Duck/Las Manitas/The Public Domain/Fran’s. The good times are gone. And they were gone about five years before you moved here. At least that’s what I heard when I got here in 1996 and the house managers at my University Co-op sat us down to watch Slacker and call out every Austin landmark that came on screen.
(A shot of Congress and 5th, when Austin was cool)
My argument is that I haven’t been to Fran’s in ages, and you probably haven’t either. That’s part of why it closed. Instead most outings I spend at new developments the Alamo Drafthouse at Lamar Union, at a Restaurant in the Triangle, at a new restaurant downtown or at the Thinkery in Mueller. Hell, there’s more improv than ever in Austin right now. My corporate business is booming and classes are filling up at Merlin Works and all over town. And the new Topfer Theater at ZACH is fabulous. And I’m so excited about the new library! And now we have Trader Joes! And Shake Shack! And Voodoo Donut!
Of course there are down sides. Traffic is worse. Rent is going up. Cost of living too. Parking blows. Our rent at ZACH is getting raised and we’re increasing our class costs as a result. So not everything is rosy. I still think that things are generally moving in a good direction. And things weren’t all that great way back when.
(An ad with some of the original Heroes of Comedy. Best improv troupe ever?)
One of the mysteries of nostalgia I cannot solve: was my improv troupe in 1999 doing some of the best work in the world or was I just watching it with inexperienced eyes? There are still memories of shows from long ago that blow my mind: The elementary school geography teacher who was a Nazi. The reveal in the final scene that Ray, the struggling writer, had the last name of Bradbury. Were these really epic mind-blowing shows or was it before I could see the improv matrix and it was all magical? And that’s the tricky thing about memory and this ephemeral art. Who’s to say what was great and what still is?
Founder, Merlin Works