A decade ago, on a dare, I took a class in improvisation. 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 a second time, and again I was surprised. I’d forgotten how much I’d forgotten. My classmates had so much fun together that most of of us have continued on to the 200 & 300 level courses.
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 students are thrown on a big 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, 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 Nos 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 > 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.