Improv & the Confidence Gap

I am not a feminist scholar. But I care about equality for the women in my life and the women of the world. So in that sense, I’m probably a feminist. Right?

I’m also a woman who’s chosen a career in the male-dominated field of information technology (IT). And my hobbies—comedy, sports, beers—leave me hangin’ with the bros often. I’ve been called “baby” and “sweetie” by men who can clearly see that I am a grown, salty woman. My ass has been grabbed, pinched, and slapped by strangers. I’ve been told I owe men sexual favors because they bought me a drink. My boobs have been the subject of jokes. I’ve been asked why I think I can keep up with the boys.

I may not have the academic standing or the vocabulary of the feminist scholar, but I’ve lived nearly 35 years as a woman. I get it.

Did you catch that? I just spent 3 paragraphs justifying why my opinions about being a woman are valid.

And that is the fucking problem.

The fact that I felt compelled to explain why it’s OK for me to have an opinion in “the woman discussion” is the reason the discussion needs to happen in the first place. And wow, is it a discussion!!! My Facebook newsfeed and Twitter is dominated by the discussion in the forms of the Confidence Gap, Leaning In, the Impostor Syndrome, and most recently #YesAllWomen. And all of the hateful backlash clutters my timeline, too.

Before these latest stories and campaigns appeared, I was already spending a ton of time thinking about what it’s like being a woman. But the well-deserved popularity of this discussion has me thinking a lot more about how my confidence as a woman is so different now than it was five years ago. So I’ve had to ask myself:

What did I do that made me start feeling good about being me?

The short answer is: Improv.

The long answer is, well, improv. My whole life I’ve been boisterous and opinionated as long as I felt “safe” with the people around me. But put me behind a podium or a microphone and I’d panic. Sweaty palms, cracking voice, flushed skin, shaking hands, blood rushing in my ears—all embarrassing physiological manifestations of fear.

My brother got married in 2009 and asked me to officiate the wedding. I gladly said yes, excited to write the words for an amazing ceremony. But the day of the wedding I broke out into full-body hives because I was afraid the way I spoke would ruin my brother’s big day. At work I’d have to spend many hours preparing to just open my mouth and deliver presentations to colleagues or clients.

I knew my happiness and success were being debilitated by a fear of speaking, using my voice. I understood the problem and I needed a solution. A boyfriend who’d been taking improv classes recommended I give it a try.

Stand-up comedy? On an improv site? When it's Cassidy, you betchya.

Stand-up comedy? On an improv site? When it’s Cassidy, you betchya.

In 2010, I signed up for a Level 1 improv class at The Hideout Theater. The first night of class I stood against the side of the room, a living, breathing wallflower. I remember being so horrified by the teacher. How was I supposed to play games with people when we hadn’t even introduced ourselves to one another!? I said about 15 words in a three-hour class. I met my friend Gloria in that class, and she told me months later that I looked so petrified the first day that she thought I’d never come back.

She was almost right. I thought about not going back. It was so terrifying. But it was also exhilarating and freeing. So I went to class for the second week. Then the third. I took it one week at a time. By the sixth (and final Level 1) class I was feeling more comfortable with trusting my gut, taking risks, and speaking up. And when I’d brush my teeth in the morning, I felt like the person staring back from the mirror was more vibrant, happier, and sure of who she was. My reflection began to look more and more like the person who existed underneath all those layers of fear and panic.

Improv wasn’t giving me a voice, it was helping me unearth the voice I already had—the voice that was suffocated by years of living in a society that told girls like me to follow the rules, sit quietly, and look pretty.

Before I knew it, I’d signed up for Level 2. Even more terrifying. Even more freeing. And at about this time, my newfound confidence started leaking into other areas of my life.

At work, for example.

Around the time Level 2 started, I was eyeing a new position at my company—a position I wanted, a huge promotion, something I’d kick butt at. But I hadn’t pursued this new position because I didn’t know how to take such a huge step forward. I was worried that my colleagues would think I was incompetent or under-qualified, or worse, that they would be mad at me for leaving my old team behind.

So I employed my recently acquired impov skills: I trusted my gut, focused in, took some risks, and was assertive in my opinions. I was scared, as pursuing this job could fuel intra-office politics and burn some professional bridges. But I stopped fantasizing about the job and took specific actions to get the job. And the most amazing thing happened:

I got the job. I got exactly what I wanted.

I was only 31 and had just landed my dream job. Did I get that job because of improv? Hell no. I got that job because I’m awesome.

But improv helped me accept and act on the fact that I’m awesome.

You know what else improv helped me accept? That I’m funny. Nah, fuck that, I’m downright hilarious. Once I acknowledged that I am awesome and hilarious I found myself compelled to be on stage more. I felt like I had to share my experiences because I was finally at a place where I could. Audiences were soon treated to funny stories about my amazing and comical life, and I was proud to show them the perspective a strong, female voice can bring to the stage. Then I decided that I’m so fucking hilarious that I should spin that off into trying stand-up.


Cassidy illustrating part of her general kick-assery.

I have wanted to be a comedian since I realized I could make my family laugh at the dinner table. I spent years of my childhood with my eyes glued to The Tracey Ullman Show and Saturday Night Live. Bill Cosby was my hero, and not just because I loved Pudding Pops. During summer vacation, when I’d live with my grandparents for several weeks, my PaPa would let me stay up late so we could eat ice cream and watch Johnny Carson together. In high school, I’d write jokes in the margins of my notebooks, then scratch over them so no one could see them. This was a practice that carried into college.

When I became a high school science teacher I carefully crafted the delivery of clever science puns for my students. In 2007 I started reading books about stand-up. I started keeping a notebook just for jokes. I stopped scratching them out, but I never, not ever for one second, believed that a scared girl like me could ever stand behind a microphone and tell my jokes to strangers. Now I tell my jokes every chance I get.

In four years I’ve gone from an awesomely hilarious and terrified wallflower to an awesomely hilarious and terrified badass. Yeah, I’m still terrified. Every time I go on stage—be it to tell a story, do some improv, or try a new joke. Now, I stare that terror down and say “Fuck you, dude. I’m doing this anyway.” Because even with as far as I’ve come in the last four years, I know I have so much more bad-assery inside me, just itching to conquer this world. I’m awesome now, but I can still be more awesome.

The best part of all this is that people have started saying things to me like “We always knew you were awesome and hilarious, we’re so glad you’ve finally to started to see that in yourself.” (And, no, I’m not quoting my parents there.) The people who say these things are those with whom collaborate.

Quoting my parents is more along the lines of “Cassidy, keep telling that dick joke. It’s a good one. We’re so proud of you!”

I’m proud of me, too. For taking the first class that started me on a path of improvising, then storytelling, then stand-up. A path that’s culminated in the confidence to stop sitting down and watching and start standing up and doing.

This has applied in every aspect of my life. For example, I spent many days last summer using my voice to stand up for women’s rights. Who knew that my voice, combined with the voices of many others who were also inside the Texas Senate chamber during Wendy Davis’ historic filibuster, could breathe new hope into Texas politics?

This May marks my four-year anniversary in improv. But it’s also the anniversary of finding my voice. Improv has helped me learn to trust my instincts, to risk articulating the swarm of thoughts in my brain, and to commit to it all without wavering.

So I’m going to start this essay over. With confidence. Like the badass we all know I am:

Being a woman is tough. Thank you, Improv, for helping me see that I’m more than tough enough to handle it.

 Interested in writing a piece for Email Andrew Buck at andybuck@gmail.



1 Comment

  1. Improv & the Confidence Gap | What Not To Do on June 5, 2014 at 11:15 am

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