Improv and the Art of Motorcycling

When in doubt, gas it.
-Motorcycling axiom

Two of my very favorite things in life are improv and motorcycling. The former has been my profession since 1989 and the latter a means of transportation and a hobby since 1986. Although I've been doing both things for a long time, it's been only recently that I started to think about the similarities between the two activities and even how each might inform the other and life in general.

If you're reading this, you may already know about my improvisational theater experience. Just so you know, my motorcycling experience includes about 250,000 road miles in all of the contiguous United States as well as Canada and Mexico. I've covered long distances in all sorts of weather and made short jaunts too. My favorite rides are on twisty mountain roads on cool, clear autumn days. "Sport touring" is what my approach is called in the two-wheeled community.

Know the difference between fear and danger
Even though it's scary to many people, improv very, very rarely poses actual physical danger to its participants. The greatest risk you face is perhaps a little embarrassment or frustration, things that cannot injure you. By throwing yourself into improv or similar activities, you risk little and have many potential rewards, like expanding your comfort zone, getting better at communicating and creativity, and having fun.

Motorcycling is a dangerous activity. I always wear protective gear and take each ride seriously. Even so, I am not fearful when I ride but rather cognizant of risk factors, like other drivers, road conditions, animals, and the weather. Fear will cloud my judgment and perception and make riding no fun. I ride largely for fun and if I find myself afraid of the dangers, I won't ride.

"Check-in" before you start.
People who have taken courses or worked with me know that I like to have a "check-in" at the beginning of class and rehearsal sessions. Each participant introduces her/himself and says how s/he is doing that day. It helps the members of the group get to know each other better and have sensitivity for each other. It also helps participants leave their emotional baggage at the door and to focus on the work at hand.

Similarly, riders should take a moment to ask themselves how they're doing before they turn the key. Are you angry? Spacey? Sad? If you are aware of your emotional state, you are more likely not to be ruled by it. Be extra cautious if you find yourself daydreaming. Ride extra cool if you feel crabby.

Look where you want to go.
A bike, motorized or not, will go where you are looking. It just will. So, if you feel like you might run off the road, don't look at the ditch, look at where the road's going. Don't stare at that tree unless you want to get intimate with it. Fixating on a perceived danger only brings us closer to it. Feel free to test this out but you might just want to take my word for it.

In improv—or presenting, acting, or just about anything—having a positive mindset is essential. If you go into a scene or speech or interview thinking you're going to suck, you almost certainly will. But you will likely encounter some trouble even if you do have a good attitude. That's when you need to focus on where you want to go (the road), rather than fixating on the trouble (the ditch).

Now, you still may fail but the extent of your failure may be determined by whether or not you were looking where you wanted to go and how you handle the difficulty. I cover this in the next section.

When in doubt, gas it.
It is human nature to want to pull back and become tentative when we face danger or feel fear. Sometimes this instinct is a good thing, like when it keeps us out of dark alleys. Sometimes this instinct can make things worse for us.

The phrase "When in doubt, gas it" comes from off-road riders. I'm not much of an off-road rider myself but I understand the idea is to keep momentum and traction (or lack thereof) consistent. If you're losing traction, it's better to keep the rear wheel spinning and trust you'll gradually get it back than to ease off the throttle, have the tire bite, and get bucked off the bike. Even if you go down, you're still headed in the right direction.

The principle applies on-road as well. For example, if I'm on my bike and a curve is tighter than I expected, I'll keep looking through it, trying to keep the suspension settled--perhaps even giving the bike a little gas to keep it settled--and maintain my progress. If I don't make it, I'll "low side" or slide on the pavement, which will ruin my day but is a short fall at low gs.

But if I hit the brakes hard, responding to my fear's demand to stop the danger, I can horribly upset the machine's stability and risk a "high side," catapulting myself off the machine at high speed and altitude. This could ruin my day—and my life.

In performance and presentation the stakes are lower but the principles still apply. If you run into trouble, obsessing on the trouble and getting all tentative will only make that trouble worse and cause a downward spiral.

If you can make the counterintuitive choice and give it gas when you want to brake, you may find yourself blasting out of the spot you're in and starting an upward spiral.

I've had students tell me about awkward moments in interviews, crisis points when the outcome hung in the balance, and when the students were bold and positive, the interview turned out successfully. Fear told them to do otherwise but fear also brings about the danger it hopes to avoid because fear isn't always so smart.

A personal example that springs to mind for me is singing. If I'm worried about a note and try to sidle up to it meekly, I'll miss it. If I just haul off and try to hit that note full force, I'll usually hit it or I'll do something interesting rather than just sounding like I missed a note.

Take a class.
As obvious as it sounds, we're not supposed to be good at things we've just started. Let an expert show you the ropes. There are lots of improv courses and workshops in the Triangle. Some are offered by Transactors and its members and some elsewhere.

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation offers courses across the country for beginning and experienced riders. They generally even provide bikes for students to ride in class. There are other riding schools as well. A good instructor will teach you how to avoid danger and manage risk and also how to manage fear to become a better and happier rider.

Maybe I missed a few connections but that's a few. Please let me know if you can think of connections between improv and motorcycling and larger-world applications. And keep the shiny side up!

-Greg Hohn, Director