Josh Nicols won’t step foot in the ocean. Or go into a pool by himself. Or audition for a role. And then there’s the judging, the constant judging he imagines other people are doing of him.
“I’m married and have kids, but I can honestly say I have never asked a woman out on a date,” says Nicols. “In fact, when I see other people asking people out, I feel the anxiety that I imagine that person must be feeling, that fear of rejection.”
Diagnosed with social anxiety disorder while in middle school, Nicols has since battled with the condition. But through the power of his imagination, and via the vehicle of theatrical improvisation, he has found a way to not only gain the upper hand, but also transform himself, as well as the art form he loves, into a serious player on the national improv scene.
Spectacles Improv Engine, the company Nicols owns, conducts workshops, teaches classes and performs every weekend at STAGEStheatre in Fullerton. It grew from an improv team he started in late 2005. At that time, there were a few such teams scattered across the county, but, for the most part, Nicols says, “everyone treated each other like they were in gangs from The Warriors. We never talked and kind of sneered at each other.”
But as the groups began interacting, the barriers began lowering and disintegrated with the first OC Improv Cup six years ago, a two-day event in which players from Southern California and across the country competed alongside players from other teams. That helped foster a community in Orange County, but it also attracted the attention of outsiders.
“I travel the country teaching and playing, and now I hear things like ‘You guys have such great stuff coming out of Orange County’ or ‘I saw this team at this festival,'” Nicols says. “The fact that [the whole OC improv scene] is known and respected is really a sign of how it’s grown.”
A self-styled loner as a kid who felt more comfortable with his imagination than with other people, Nicols stumbled across improv while attending Glendora High School. “I [saw] these students doing improvisation, and I didn’t even know what it was,” he recalls. “I just knew it was people having a good time making other people laugh, and that was extremely charismatic to me. And I thought, ‘I could do this.'”
The next year, Nicols was part of the troupe, which performed in the school’s theater, charging 25 cents a head, money it put toward the drama club. “As opposed to the rest of the day, where I was a square peg and didn’t fit in really with anyone, improv provided a safe haven,” he says. “On the stage, I didn’t have to worry about [anxiety] as much. Offstage, I still deal with it, but it’s absolutely given me a tool to deal with it.”
Improv, particularly the long-form improv he favors (no gimmicks or even a rough idea of where the scene is going), has taught Nicols invaluable coping skills. For instance, it’s essential in improv to look your scene partners in the eyes and to convey information and intimacy through how you look at and touch them. “And I’m making a concerted effort to do both of those things in my relationships offstage,” he says. “All these things I had to learn to do in improv are bleeding over into my life.
“But I still don’t go in the ocean.”