The premise of improv is simple. Performers don’t know what will happen onstage until they're up there. Each scene begins with a suggestion from the audience. The performers start with that prompt, making up the story as they go along.
I signed up for improv not because I have a burning desire to be the next Amy Poehler or Kirstin Wiig, nor any illusions that you’ll soon be seeing me on the big screen or on Saturday Night Live. What inspired me to sign up for improv classes was the dedicated time and space to play... and also because the skills it builds are great for leaders (and people in general)... but I’m mostly here because of the ridiculous games.
On my first day, the elevator ride to Magnet Theater classrooms on the 10th floor seemed to take forever, adding to my growing excitement. The windowless classroom was half empty; strangers slowly started trickling in. We all sat down in the chairs lined up against one wall of the classroom. The room was silent except for some nervous whispering and then our instructor Rick, who reminds me a bit of Denis the Menace, walks in.
In his warm and exuberant way, Rick launches into his improv introduction concluding with, “if you’re not funny, there’s no real-life consequence. People just don’t think you’re funny. That is not a big deal.” Then he exclaims, “Okay, let’s get two people up there!”
People think you have to be funny to do improv. But contrary to popular belief, improv students are not thrown on to a dark stage where someone yells at them every few seconds to do something funny. The reality is far tamer: it’s mostly playing games, simple ones... probably designed for kindergarteners like Zip Zap Zop, Pass the Clap/Face/Phrase or Bunny Bunny.
Lesson 1: ‘Yes, But’ is just a ‘No’ in a Tuxedo
Midway through my first day, I learned the first rule of improv: always say yes. This meant I had to accept the reality that my partner suggested. Yes, I am bellboy in a hotel lobby... Yes, I am trophy wife... Yes, we are in a chemistry lab... Yes, it’s my birthday. Once I say ‘yes,’ I must then build on my partner’s ideas so that we are both contributing to the scene. Turn by turn we generate new, unusual, and (hopefully) funny content, simply by using the “Yes, And...” rule.
Partner A: “I bought you a hamster for your 40th birthday!”
Partner B: “Look how cute and fluffy she is. I’ve always wanted a hamster. How did you know?
Raise your hand if you want to see the rest of this scene! I know I do.
Lesson 2: Truth is funnier that fiction
The next thing I noticed was that after receiving a word to start a scene, a big black hole appears and devours all my thoughts. A scene in a restaurant should be easy right? Nope. My brain becomes a swirling vortex of nothingness. In fact, you’d think I’d never been to a restaurant by the blank look that washes over my face. I’m paralyzed by the pressure and audio loop is playing in my mind. ‘Oh god everyone’s staring at me! Quick, say something smart. WHY AREN’T YOU COMING UP WITH ANYTHING?”
Unlike some new improvisers, I wasn’t scared of being goofy or making a fool of myself (I do that regularly enough in real life!) but I am a classic over-thinker. Even in our judgment-free classroom, I get stuck trying to find the “right idea” to start a scene. What if my scene idea is predictable and real-life-ish, does this mean I’m not creative? Why can’t I think of a quick, creative pivot that surprises (and delights) the audience?
Spoiler alert: There is no “right scene”. As they say, there is more than one way to hit a piñata. Once I figured this out, I began to loosen up. Improv is built line-by-line and a scene isn’t likely to be funny from the first line.
Soon I stopped worrying about saying something funny and instead, discovered the second universal truth of improv: communicating something – anything – that is true. For example: “I am unhealthily obsessed with Harry Potter” “When people fart while wearing headphones, do they forget that everyone else can still hear?” “I’m deathly afraid of karaoke.” People relate to the truth. That’s what they find compelling. And for me, the approach of trying to be ordinary, instead of spectacular, unexpected, or funny, helped relieve a lot of pressure.
Lesson 3: Don’t be Funny
While improv games often result in spontaneous laughter, Rick reminds us to avoid trying to be funny. Say what?! When you’re building a scene, the easy/obvious joke or one-liner often jeopardizes the entire scene for a quick laugh instead of nurturing the scene. Instead the goal is to pay attention and to commit fully to whatever you’re doing and if everyone does a few simple things well the result is comedy. And just in case you’re fears are yet at rest about being funny, take refuge in the fact that everyone in a beginners improv class is more focused on what they are going to say than they are on what you are saying right now that worrying about if YOU are going to be funny. Phew!
Before you know it, the first week of class is wrapping up and we’re trotting down the hall to the student stage at Magnet Theatre for our first show... in front of real people... but thankfully only about fifteen of them.
Lights up! I’m blinded and can’t make out any faces in the audience but I can feel them starting directly at me. They’re silent but the air is heavy with anticipation – anything can happen. Bold character choices. Character, emotion, start in the middle of the scene. Let it evolve. Commit. Get out of your damn head. Improv rules are your friend. I can do this. Deep breaths. This’ll be fun. Can everyone else hear my heart pounding?
And with that Rick bellows, “Can I get a suggestion for an object?”
Nice to meet you...
I'm Andi (hence the blog name). I'm a travel aficionado, passionate eater, tireless explorer of internet rabbit-holes, and amateur thinker. Join me as I give it all up (ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration) and go around the world on a mid-career "soul sabbatical" & year-of-learning to figure out what to be NEXT when I grow up. Won’t you grab a cup of chai and stay a while?
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