Improv 101

I had to take Improv 101 when I was a senior in college. In order to complete my undergrad requirements for my master’s program in education, I had to take some kind of performance-based class: Acting 101 or Improv 101. I had no prior experience in either, and it just so happened that the Acting 101 class filled up before I could get in. I remember being terribly nervous, because how can someone just “learn” how to do improv? In my mind improv artists were the kind of people who were on SNL (when it was still funny consistently, not just on occasion) and Whose Line Is it Anyway? This class did not involve me doing any kind of intense reading or writing, so how on earth could I become “good” at it?

Well… we just got started, we being the class of newbies. Every day, every week, we added to our toolbox. Noticing and mimicking others. Paying attention to details. Making an offer. Learning to accept. Saying “Yes, and…”. Learning to say “TA DA!!” when we made mistakes and move on. Playing. Co-creating with one person, then three, then a whole group. Embracing the moment and then letting it go. Developing a narrative. Going into a scene with an open, receptive mind and no plan at all except to cooperate with the other players.

It was challenging, because I like plans and organization and knowing for the most part what’s going to happen in advance. I like being able to rehearse and feel comfortable with what I’m going to say, even if it’s only a mental rehearsal. In Improv class, there was no time for that. We were up in front of each other all the time, learning from each other all the time, and becoming better at this art with each other all the time. We had to communicate with and without words. We had to avoid getting stuck in familiar patterns. We had to remember things like opening and closing the imaginary door if someone else had added that to a scene.

Now, in my day-to-day existence, I think that it is possible to live an entire life based around the principles of Improv. I don’t mean that in such a way that we should all just fly by the seat of our pants and see how it goes, because I know that improv artists (and performers in general) really work hard at the skills of their respective crafts — experimenting, pushing to the outer edges of imagination, sharpening their mental acuity. Not all of it works, and that stuff gets thrown away. I do mean it in the way that I am a better person as a family member/wife/colleague/friend, when I say “Yes, and…” and try to build on others’ ideas rather than finding everything wrong with them. That being able to accept whatever is happening that is out of my control is a powerful skill. It gives me the agency to respond in a way that is constructive rather than dwell on the fact that what happened before wasn’t how I envisioned it. (That happens all the time in a scene: someone starts, you think it’s going in one direction, and then a word or phrase takes it to a new place. As a player, are you going to try to force it backward or keep building? The answer is obvious.)

I also love the way that Improv made me be a better listener. Our first group exercises were just about repeating sounds and movements within a circle. Do you know how hard that can actual be? You have to listen and forget about looking stupid or feeling awkward, because the only way it works is if everyone participates. When we moved on to scenes, if I wasn’t listening to the story being developed and the conversation and/or actions taking place, then whatever I added wouldn’t make sense. Isn’t Life that way? We get so fixated on the me, on the what I want, that we aren’t even getting the memo from the scene unfolding right in front of us and the possibilites that lie there. People make us offers all the time: Want to try this new thing? Want to take on this new challenge? What if we practiced saying “Yes” more often instead of “No, but…”? And at the same time, Improv made me try to be a clear communicator. I couldn’t  mumble in performance — even if I was nervous or self-conscious — because the audience can’t hear that. I couldn’t expect my partner to cooperate if he couldn’t see or hear me. So why do we get upset when other people don’t respond in ways we want after we fail to be transparent in our thinking?

The older I get, the better I understand Improv 101. I don’t want to be back in college taking the class because I’d rather be here now and applying what I learned: staying grounded in each moment and paying attention to the “scenes” I am part of daily — listening, responding, and saying “Yes.”

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