Why You Should Take an Improv Class Right Now
Imagine being five years old again. You didn't care what you said or did (as long as it didn't upset anybody), you could be what you wanted to be, and you had no responsibilities. Believe it or not, you can do this as an adult and actually better yourself.
The Secret Is Improvisation. What Is It?
If you've seen Reno 911, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, or Parks and Recreation, chances are that you've seen some form of improv.
The word improv is short for improvisation, which "is the art of responding in an immediate and unmediated way to the stimulus provided by one's environment" (http://scalar.usc.edu/anvc/music-of-the-hemispheres/what-is-improvisation). That's a fancy way to say that something happens and you react, right?
We do this everyday and probably don't even realize it. After all, life isn't predictable and, often, there is no manual except for self-help articles, am I right? (high-five) Sometimes, all we can do is listen and react.
Improv is the same thing. A performer starts a scene with a reaction, a declaration, or another sentence, and the other person simply listens and reacts. Sounds simple, right?
It is. But, before we delve into improv specifics, let's talk about why it's so beneficial.
How Improve Can Help Your Professional Life
I created the chart below to help me explain. Each column has traits that employers look for in employees, traits of happy people, and benefits of improvisation--because I believe they intersect.
If you look at subsequent rows, the improv benefits listed seem to be very similar to the traits listed for happy people and for work.
My point? Improvisation is good for your health and your pocketbook! Wahoo!
Traits That Employers Look For
Traits of Happy People
Benefits of Improv
Understand their own path
They slow down to appreciate life's little pleasures and laugh often.
Laugh at lifes' truths and idiosyncrasies.
Works well on a team.
Have a strong support system.
Your fellow improvisers will support you.
Like to problem-solve/Can think independently
Are adaptable/They stay positive.
You can be whoever you want. Make a choice, and be bold. The rest will figure outself out. If somebody makes a “mistake”, turn it into a fun game. There are no true accidents in improv.
They live in the moment.
Allows you to be in the moment.
Are happy to learn new things
They have a growth mindset.
Appreciate “gifts”. Have the ability to swipe a scene and start fresh.
Great! Let's delve deeper. Yes, And. Just two simple words. Yes, And is the basis of improvisation.
Have you ever heard someone that says "no" to everything? Think of the last customer service experience where something went wrong, and the person offered nothing to make it better. It was frustrating, as the communication stopped.
"No" gets us "nowhere. (I deserve that eyeroll.)
Picture that same scenario again, only this time, the other person listens, and responds with a "Yes" and says something useful or honest that opens up communication, like: "We are completely out of Heinz ketchup, but we have Hunts' ketchup that tastes pretty similar". (It does.) The communication goes better and it was easier to find common ground, right?
Now granted, people working in customer service have the limit of what they're able to offer, but it's usually the way it's communicated that determines if the customer is going to be temporarily upset, but satisfied or has a meltdown. Believe me; I've worked my share of customer service jobs, and there have been several times that I've literally had nothing to offer. Sometimes, you have to negotiate to work out a solution, or just plain listen.
Let's apply "Yes, And" to improv scenework. I mentioned earlier that a scene can start with a reaction, a declaration, or another sentence--the more detail, the better. The other person responds in their "Yes" and then something helpful to the scene. (You don't have to say "Yes, And." directly.) By doing so, you support your scenemate.
"Howdy, Neighbor. Listen, your dog's been crapping in my yard."
"Well, Frank, I only let him because you broke my saw and didn't pay for it."
Note: It's a little weird to come up with scene ideas by yourself. My point is, by supporting your scenemate, you also provide the answers to who you are, what you are doing and/or what the scene is about, and where you are. These are paramount to improv scenes. The more detail and "Yes, And"-ing gives your scene partner plenty to work with--on and off the stage.
Be Whoever You Want To Be...And Be Honest
Have you ever wanted to be someone else for awhile? Maybe a kooky beauty queen, an elderly man obsessed with Britney Spears, or an uptight Six Flags ride operator? You can in improvisation.
Think of all the things that you want to say on a daily basis, but aren't able to. Improv is a safe space to be completely honest. Your only job is to tell the truth of that character and ground them in reality. We all know people like I mentioned above, and as the audience, we want to see their depth--what connects us as humans. (Ooh; I just got deep there.)
Make Mistakes and Embrace Them
By being whoever you would like to be, this also means that you can't mind how silly you probably look. Everyone is going to be looking silly at some point, and everyone is going to make mistakes. It is our job as your scene partner to justify those mistakes. For example, if we're using the elderly man obsessed with Britney Spears example, maybe I accidentally say her name as Ritney Spears. Then, my scene partner can justify my mistake by making it not a mistake at all. Maybe, then their character can call every noun by its' second letter. It may look something like this:
"I didn't say you could borrow my Ritney Spears album, Otto!"
"I only borrowed it because your Ew Kids on the Block album was broken."
"You broke it, Randy!"
See? This is now a game that can be heightened. We all make mistakes, and that's due to living in the moment. Embrace them.
I own this book personally and refer to it from-time-to-time. I strongly recommend for any improviser--whether beginning or professional. It's a quick read and the sections are easy to refer back to.
Get Out of Your Head, Trust Your Gut, and Live in the Moment
It sounds so easy, doesn't it? Many of you can agree with me that it's not that easy. As functioning humans, we have a lot of daily information to store--our numerous work computer passwords, what time we have to pick the kids up from school, what food we are bringing to the party, etc. It can get overwhelming.
The good thing is that improvisation is a safe space. You have virtually no boundaries. (as long as it's not in poor taste. Talking about the Holocaust or abuses in the Catholic Church, for example, are never really good topics for comedy.) Take advantage.
Go into the head space of five-year-old you, when you didn't filter what you said. See what magic pops out. Aside from what I mentioned above, you don't have to mind what you say, because you won't make a mistake, and you don't need to care. Make improvisation your therapy and let lose. Slowly, the living-in-the-moment part will start to spill out into your life. Like me, you may start to turn off your internal dialogue that tries to skip time, trust your gut the first time, and may notice that life becomes even more enjoyable.
If It Seems Scary, Jump In.
There are many things in life that we put off because we're afraid to do them. I've always wanted to be a writer (in addition to a comedian) and I put that off for years. Don't.
First of all, there are online resource for nearly anything you'd like to do. Don't let fear stop you from thinking its' not feasible. Don't ever let money stop you. You can always work and pursue what you want to do, until you don't need the other job. All you have to do is try. Jump out there.
Same thing with improvisation. One of the scariest things in the world is to start a scene after getting a suggestion. Neither you or your scene partner may know what to say immediately. It's silent, and it seems like an eternity.
*FINALLY! ONE PERSON SPEAKS!*, and the scene starts.
That's all it takes--just one step forward, then another. What you say doesn't need to be funny, and it doesn't need to be perfect. If the scene doesn't work out, then someone else can swipe and start a new scene. The good news is: that all scenes are going to end eventually.
If you continue jumping in, you'll craft this skill even more. Soon, you will start to feel like a gladiator after realizing what you can accomplish under pressure. You can apply this anywhere, but especially at work. This mindset forces you to tackle tasks that you're not looking forward to, so you can swipe the scene and move onto something more fun.
This has greatly helped me with my procrastination and even something as simple as getting my finger pricked at the doctor. I am terrified of needles, and although this thinking doesn't cure that, I know that I have about thirty seconds to a minute of discomfort. Then I can swipe the scene and move on with life. I can forget about my tears, my speeding heart rate, and me trying to talk the doctor into a urine test. Truth.
You'll feel great that you challenged yourself. If you start to think of life this way, I strongly believe that you will get more out of it.
Most importantly, you have to have fun. You just have to.
Life can be stressful, frustrating, and seemingly painful enough at times, so why not make fun of it? Make fun of that cantankerous drug store employee who couldn't seem to break a smile, your co-worker that wants to one-up everyone, or the doggie daycare owner who insists on treating the dogs like babies. After all, any temporary discomfort will be over soon and you'll be able to "swipe the scene" with every new day--equipped with plenty of character material.
Successful People That Did Improv
As if you need anymore reasons to try improvisation, here are some successful people that starting in improvisation (in no particular order):
- Amy Poehler
- Kristen Wiig
- Melissa McCarthy
- Wayne Brady
- Mike Myers
- Dana Carvey
- Tina Fey
- Stephen Colbert
- Jane Lynch
- Martin Short
- Bill Murray
- Brian Doyle-Murray
- Bill Hader
- John Candy
- Eugene Levy
- Gilda Radner
- Dan Ackroyd
- Alan Arkin
- Joan Rivers
- Vince Vaughn
- Vanessa Bayer
- Jason Sudeikis
- Aziz Ansari
You're in luck! There are improv theaters in nearly every major city. Here are some chains to get your improv search started:
- Second City: Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto
- The Annoyance Theater: Chicago
- ImprovOlympic: Chicago, Los Angeles
- The Groundlings: Los Angeles
- Comedysportz: Boston, New York City, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Cincinnati, Columbus, Detroit, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, Indianapolis, Chicago, Quad Cities, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, Provo, Sacramento, San Jose, Los Angeles, Manchester, England, and Berlin, Germany
- Upright Citizens' Brigade: New York City, Los Angeles
Give it a whirl! It may change your life.
Have you tried improvisation?
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Lauren Sutton