A decade ago I took a class in improvisation on a dare with some friends. I was surprised how much the class helped me experience daily life. It made me a better speaker and teacher too.

Recently I decided to take improv class again, and again I was surprised. I’d forgotten how much forgotten. My classmates had so much fun together that most of of us have continued on to the 200 level course.

Here’s what I’ve learned and why I recommend people should take it.

Assumptions that are wrong:

  • It’s not about being funny. When I mention improv class most people are terrified. They assume you’re thrown on a big dark stage where someone yells at you every few seconds to do something funny. The reality is tame: it’s mostly playing games. Games like saying sentences where you alternate words with someone else. The games get harder as the classes go on, but you’re often told to avoid trying to be funny. Instead the goal is to pay attention and to commit fully to whatever you’re doing. If everyone does a few simple things well the result is comedy, but it’s not a straight line.
  • You don’t have to be a natural performer. In the class you quickly learn improv (and most drama) depends on the commitment of actors to the scene they’re in. Being ‘good at improv’ is not talent in a conventional sense, but more of a capacity for being fully attentive. Enthusiasm and willingness matter most.
  • It’s not hard to learn. Both times I’ve taken the course I’ve been amazed at what happens when you get a bunch of ordinary strangers to faithfully follow the rules of the games. The rules are brilliant: they let magic emerge from a story people build together.

What I’ve learned:

  • I’d forgotten how to play. The games played in improv might bore a typical 8 year old. But for adults they’re wonderful. Someone says “Be an angry fish” and everyone says “I’m an angry fish!” and you have a room full of professional men and women instantly run around acting like a bunch of crazed, happy children. The rules for the game demand you jump in deep. And I’ve rediscovered what children know: when I jump in all the way I’m surprised by what I can do. So much of adult life is doing things by half, or pretending to care when we know we don’t. By rule, there is no half-assing in improv class. Whatever you are supposed to be right now, be it all the way.
  • Life is less stressful. Now when I’m in challenging situations in life I recall something ridiculous I was forced to do in improv, like miming my way through the world championship of dishwashing, and by comparison the life situation I’m in is easy. I’m more relaxed in general from taking improv class. Fewer things give me stress, as I’ve been in far crazier situations in class last week.
  • Questions and No’s are deadly. The improv rule of Yes and… is the most well known. The games make clear questioning slows things down and kills energy. It’s a bad habit many of us have in life, asking dozens of questions before we’ll try anything. The rule doesn’t mean you have to do what others tell you, but that you have to find creative ways to build on the energy of whatever they’ve offered, and offer it back to them to build on. It’s a simple principle, but we have many bad habits in how we handle things people offer us. 
  • Improvisation is everywhere. Every conversation in life is an act of improvisation: no one gives you a script for the day when you wake up. Improv helps me pay attention, proper attention, to all the situations I didn’t realize I could influence, or that were available to me if only I noticed them.  Or more precisely, going to improv class makes me comfortable in dealing with whatever happens in many situations with other people.
  • Metaphors for Life. The core rules work well as life philosophy: No half-assing. Make the other guy look good. Say Yes, And…, make big offers, it’s better to fail big then fail moderate. In tough decisions and situations I think about improv rules often and they help.
  • Doing trumps reading. I’ve been recommending improv class to people for years, but even I’d forgotten how much I’d gained from the experience. Life is experience and reading about other people’s experiences, as powerful as it can be if the writer’s good, is a shell of having the experience yourself. Merely reading about improvisation, creativity or anything else of importance robs you of what you’re seeking. Put yourself in the middle of things.

If you know of an improv comedy group near you, most teach introductory classes. Go take one.  Grab a friend if you need to, but go sign up. In Seattle my class is with Unexpected Productions, but a decade ago I took it with Jet City Improv.

  • This site is powered with the magic of space age email to send my best posts to you each month. No hassle, no spam, no fuss. (privacy policy enforced by my Rotweiller)

You Will Like These:

12 Responses to “What I learned from Improv Class”

  1. Joe Topinka |

    My company offered training with Second City. It was great. These are the 5 ideas i like and still use today:

    Use the phrase – “Yes, and…” – as a technique to support and encourage open communication. The principle behind saying “yes” underscores and acknowledges that you hear the other person’s message and comprehend their point of view. The “and” part of the “yes, and…” gives you an opportunity to constructively share your point of view. It seems like a simple idea and frankly, it is. When used over a period of time, trust between teammates is strengthened in a way that pays dividends down the road.

    Love every idea for a little bit. You might see an idea or angle that you may have otherwise passed by. Honor and respect the differences people bring to the table.

    Play the scene you are in, not the one you rehearsed. In other words, drop the script. Be open to playing with new ideas even if they don’t meet with conventional wisdom.

    Bring a brick, not a cathedral. Don’t try and solve problems on your own in a vacuum. Let ideas grow by truly leveraging different perspectives.

    Use “you could” instead of “you should”. By paying attention to word choices and how emotions influence the message, you are more likely to encourage open and creative thinking.

    Reply
  2. Sean Crawford |

    Scott, I share your joy.

    This time last year I posted an essay on taking Creative Movement with theatre majors, a skill that, as with you, has lasted me all my life in the real world.

    In a nutshell, I said we were learning the zen of having “energy and focus.” This we were told in class. … I think paying attention is a form of love… At a higher level of abstraction, unspoken, we were learning that “perfect love casteth out all fear.”

    Reply
  3. Frank |

    It’s funny- I majored in both computer science and theater in college and I’m pretty sure the latter did more to prepare me for a career in tech.

    Reply
    • Scott |

      That hypothesis would make for a fascinating blog post. You should write about it.

      Reply
      • Frank |

        Good point. I will do that!

        Reply
  4. Genevieve Howard |

    You’re right! Improv skills can be extended to be life skills. What a fabulous idea for a blog post. Your point of “Questions and No’s are deadly” and “Improvisation is everywhere” have been life-changers for me. I’m no longer a scene-killer in my day-to-day life!

    The approach of trying to be ordinary, instead of spectacular or funny, helps relieve pressure. Limitations can help creativity. The limitations of games make it easy to perform because the boundaries are defined. Thanks for this post–I really enjoyed it!

    Reply
  5. Steve Portigal |

    Great post! This is something I’ve bee exploring for years. I have been doing a workshop/presentation about improv/design/creativity for about 8 years and every time I do it I learn something new from the folks that participate.I’ve found improv and the lessons it illustrates so gratifying and enlightening and talk about it with teams all the time.

    http://www.slideshare.net/steveportigal/yes-my-iguana-loves-to-chacha-improv-creativity-and-collaboration is not gonna give you the whole thing but at least a feel

    Reply
    • Scott |

      Thanks Steve – I’ll check it out.

      Reply
  6. Susan |

    I love this post! I never heard of the “Yes and” rule, but I can certainly see how it might improve my approach to life, inclined as I am to questions and nos.

    Reply
  7. Terry Withers |

    Hi Scott,

    I’m an improv instructor and performer at UCB in NYC. Lately I’ve been doing improv online via Google Hangout with performers and students across the country. Last week we even held a performance online, which was pretty cool. I thought you or some of your improv colleagues in Seattle might want to join me for a practice session sometime. It’s totally free and just for fun. Hope to hear from you!

    Reply
  1. [...] Inspired by Scott Berkun, I thought I’d write down a few things I learned: [...]

  2. […] For most of my life, I have been participating, in one way or another, in theatre and performance. In the last decade or so, I have found that I absolutely love performing improv comedy with other people. There is a lot of writing about improv and how some participants can take it too seriously, for example this article. Others thing that improv is just generally helpful for life, for example this article. […]

Leave a Reply