Truth on Stage and In Life Reguires Being Vulnerable

Greg Hohn continues with his series this Sunday. All of us have observed others who move through life with an ironic detachment (Greg’s phrase) from all that is happening to and around them. They present themselves as cool to everyone they encounter. Rather than cool, their behavior is an avoidance of vulnerability—showing their true selves with all strengths and weaknesses as humans. When one refuses to be vulnerable, passion is smothered. Again, Greg addresses the disciplines of improvisational theater in his article, but one can easily see that the concepts apply to life as well.

The relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt but in spite of doubt. Rollo May

Gregory M. Hohn

Greg Hohn, Guest Contributor

In this day and age, the word “commitment” has come to be synonymous with the word “choice.” Now I’m not going to go off on some diatribe about good old-fashioned values but I would like to suggest that commitment means so much more than that, particularly as it relates to improv, theater, presenting, and perhaps life itself.

Of course, the dictionary also defines commitment, among other things, as, “confinement to a mental institution or hospital.” The definition I want to explore is what the American Heritage Dictionary calls, “The state of being bound emotionally or intellectually to a course of action…”

To me, commitment means being vulnerable because it is investing in an action to the exclusion of other options. It’s not just choosing A over B with B remaining as an equally viable option. It’s setting up a situation with A as the decision and the result will be success or failure. The greater the commitment, the greater the vulnerability. And vice versa.

In improv and theater in general, the term commitment is used as a compliment. “She really committed to that character.” “The company committed to the form it was attempting.” Commitment is a term used to indicate how much a person or group has invested in its effort.

Likewise, when it comes to public speaking, if we refer to a presenter as committed, we usually mean that person was passionate, persuasive, and interesting.

Being interesting, incidentally, is a highly under-appreciated skill, I say. You can be saying the most important things in the world but if people aren’t paying attention because you’re boring, you might as well not say them at all. Why, you might even try to be entertaining while you’re being interesting!

Developing Confidence

But commitment is also one of those things like confidence that’s easy to discuss but hard to do something about. How does one become more confident? It’s not like you just become that way instantly. If you have confidence problems, it’s inherently hard to have the confidence to overcome them, right? It takes technique and practice.

I’d say that becoming a more committed actor or presenter is less mysterious than increasing your self-confidence. However, the path I would suggest also seems counterintuitive. You must become more vulnerable, risk more, and get closer to utter catastrophe if you want to become more committed. In other words, you must become weak to become strong.

So what does that look like?

In improv it means fully engaging in a character or a form. An oversimplified way of putting it would be, “Care about your character and make your character care about himself or herself.” Most people are concerned with their own state and have the emotions attendant to it. This is true of villains and those who hate themselves as well. If the actor doesn’t care about the character, other actors, characters, and audiences certainly won’t either.

A negative definition might be helpful here: Don’t be ironically detached from your character. Irony, which may take the form of joking at the character’s expense, shows that you the actor are superior to your character. That is an emotionally barren place because there is no strong connection with—no vulnerability to—the character.

So the actor should become the character’s embodiment, its proxy. What happens to the character happens to you the actor. That’s a little frightening because the character’s emotions might bleed into your own. You might find yourself wanting to cry or yell or kiss someone or do something similarly revealing. Of course, the character’s life is not yours, so this is exhilarating as well, sort of like how a roller coaster promises fear without actual physical danger (usually).

If you can throw yourself into that experience—commit to it—you will affect others in a way that you cannot if you remain cool, by which I mean both aloof and, you know, groovy. If you want to look cool as an actor, the only way is by having the courage to be uncool. If you start out trying to look cool, you’ll either look like you’re trying to do just that or you’ll appear indifferent.

For those who aren’t actors and are simply looking to be more dynamic communicators, the path to greater commitment also requires greater vulnerability. A brief story from my teaching might help illustrate this point.

In my Applied Improv courses in UNC‘s MBA program this past fall, I had my students make short speeches about things they felt passionate about. The vast majority of the speeches were about negative passions. My students hated everything from the Dallas Cowboys to their neighbors who don’t clean up after their dog.

Passion is Personal Relevance Revealed

Fair enough, we all have dislikes but I couldn’t help feeling there was no danger to saying any of these things. There’s nothing that personal or weird about these things and thus there is little vulnerability for the speaker and thus these speeches were largely forgettable if not downright boring. I don’t believe for a moment that the speakers are that way; they just weren’t showing their passion. And by passion, I mean personal relevance.

Now one woman spoke about how she felt like a fake when she interviewed and networked. This was personal and the entire class was riveted. Why? Because this was personal. It was a daring and potentially controversial thing to say. It revealed something deep and true about the speaker. No one who heard it forgot that speech.

And then there were the positive speakers. Going back to adolescence or earlier, we are pressured by our peers not to show our true love or devotion to people and things. If you love anything that is outside of the mainstream and say so in middle school, you are a dork. It is seen as a weakness. So hating stuff becomes a lot more socially acceptable.

Unfortunately, some of us never grow out of that, although most of us probably grow tired of the fear of expressing passion ourselves. We get tired of others being boring because they cannot express passion. So how refreshing it was when a student teared up when he spoke about his devotion to his family’s business. Again, it was unforgettable.

We in the class knew this was important and we knew it took courage for the student to show his vulnerability. His openness became strength. I heard nothing but positive feedback about that and if anyone lost respect for that student, I can only say I’m happy I don’t live in the arid world of that person.

As with so many things, the biggest barriers to commitment and vulnerability are our own neurotic and outmoded fears. It might feel dangerous to be vulnerable but where is the danger? Isn’t the feeling akin to being on a roller coaster? What’s the worst that can happen if you reveal and express your true self? It might not always work out well but you probably won’t die or suffer serious or lasting injury if it doesn’t.

Moreover, my experience, both in life and in teaching others, tells me that the potential benefits of being vulnerable are worth the risk.

If there is a way for a presenter or an actor to become authentically more dynamic and committed without becoming more vulnerable in the process, I do not know of it. It’s like having to work out if you want to become fitter. And like working out, vulnerability and commitment become easier once you make a habit of them, once you…uh…commit to them.

Biographical Note:

Greg Hohn is an improvisational theater specialist. In 1989 he joined Transactors (, the south’s oldest improv company, and was been the Chapel Hill-based theater’s director, 1996-2011. In addition to performing and teaching improvisation, performs in film, television, radio, scripted theater, and industrial media and also sings with a big band.

Greg has developed the FIZ Applied Improv ( curriculum and brought it to academic, corporate, and governmental settings across the United States and occasionally outside it. He has been an award-winning faculty member in the University of North Carolina’s MBA program since 2000 and joined Duke University’s drama department in 2008.

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