Profile | Improv Actor Jim Libby Explains What to do with a Bear

We’ve all had the nightmare: You’re on stage in a dark theater in front of a packed house; the lights go up and suddenly you realize, you have no idea what you’re supposed to say…

 

For Jim Libby, this is not a nightmare, it’s reality: For the last 20 years, he and his troupe have been getting up in front of audiences with no script and creating hilarious impromptu sketches, leaving viewers in fits of laughter and tears.

Even though Libby has been an actor most of his life, he originally wanted to be a physicist, until he got accepted into an elite theater school and just kept going. The similarities seem obvious to him.

“I tell stories, so I take things apart, try to figure out how and why they work, then put them back together in new and innovative ways. I’m just doing it with the human condition rather than the building blocks of the universe.”

Libby got up periodically during our interview, fetched his cigarettes, smoked a half dozen of them, and searched frantically around the apartment for his slippers. He seemed very wired.

So how does he survive such perfect conditions for stage fright? He answered by demonstrating.

“People think courage is the opposite of fear, but I think courage is being afraid and still walking forward. It’s not saying ‘I’m afraid’ (standing still), it’s saying ‘I’m afraid’ (walking forward).” Feel the fear and do it anyway. It’s like walking backwards into the future. “Not knowing what’s coming is scary – it’s scary to live in a question. We as artists ask a question, answer a question, and then question that answer.”

When teaching improv, Libby often focuses on helping people learn to manage their fears. “We often say in our work, if something is making you scared, then follow the fear,” he says. “It’s the thing that’s telling us we’re on the right path. Fear is our tour guide – that’s where the discovery will lie.”

If you meet a bear in the woods, get away from it, quietly and quickly. If you meet a bear on stage, kill that bear – or let it kill you, or take it by the paw to a restaurant and see how it works with a knife and fork. But you can deal with it, because it’s a safe place.

Janima Nam
Janima Nam is a freelance journalist, translator, and editor living in Vienna. She has a BFA in film from New York University and a Masters degree (MA) from the London Consortium in Interdisciplinary Studies.

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