I have always loved comedy.  As a teenager I would stay up late at night to watch David Letterman and Saturday Night Live.  I lost an entire year of English secretly listening to stand-up comedy on cassette in the back of my English class. Sam Kinison was hilarious and there was no need for English class, my grammar and spelling were perfect. I loved the idea of being able to make people laugh.  I loved making my friends laugh.  I was the funny guy! But stand up felt unapproachable to me. Whatever it was that enabled a person to write out a tight five that killed on stage in front of a room full of drunken strangers, I didn’t have it.  But then, I discovered improv.

The first time I went to see improv comedy I had no idea what I was going to see. I went for the same reason most 18-year-old boys do anything: a hot girl invited me.  The show was in a restaurant in Goleta, California, a small town just north of Santa Barbara, famous for being the home of UCSB, and nothing else. This is where I found a home.  I was mesmerized.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  It was hilarious, energetic, and entertaining. Halfway through the show, they asked for a volunteer.  The hot girl dared me to get up, but there was no need – I was getting on that stage. The last time I had been on a stage, I was in the third-grade.  I sang a duet with a kid named Carlos; we sang a few lines from “We are the World”.  I think it went OK, but performing wasn’t my thing. I wasn’t a theater kid.  I didn’t have the bug.  But that night at the improv show, I caught it.  I was getting on that stage.  I didn’t just raise my hand, I stood up.  It worked. They picked me.  My enthusiasm, combined with a total lack of other volunteers, won them over. I was escorted out of the room to participate in a guessing game.  The performers were so funny and encouraging.  When it was my turn, I ran in and leapt up on stage.  The lights, the energy, the back and forth with the other comedians… it was intoxicating. I was hooked.  I signed up for workshops that night. No, I didn’t get the girl. I didn’t care.

I would love to say that I joined the team, became an instant star, and am now a big-time comedian. But that’s not how it happened.  It was hard work.  It was painful at times.  I had to overcome my lack of experience, low self-esteem, and the constant fear that I would be thrown off the team.  I was a terrible performer: I had no presence on stage.  Half the time I would lose confidence and my voice would drop to a whisper.  In rehearsal, the other performers would all yell, “what” to break me of that habit.  It sucked. But I just kept going.  I loved being in that world.  It was fun. I loved the other performers and hanging out with them was amazing.  So, I fought through the frustration and, show by show, I got better. Over time, I gained experience and confidence. I could stand on a stage and make a room full of drunken strangers laugh.

That night when a hot girl invited me to a show was almost 30 years ago.  Over the past 30 years, I have performed in thousands of shows and taught hundreds of other performers. Eventually, I decided to step away from the stage.  I still perform from time to time, but improv is no longer my full-time job.  I left the stage and went back to college.  I got my Bachelor’s and then my Master’s degree.  But there is nothing I learned in college, or later in my professional career, that is more valuable than what I learned doing improv.  Doing improv has made me a better communicator, a better boss, a better employee, and a better father.  Years of performing have equipped me with an invaluable skill set that I take with me everywhere I go.

-Matt McDonald, Mainstage Cast