‘How did I let myself get talked into this?’ I thought as I parallel parked my car on a busy street in downtown
Philadelphia. My heart was beating like a fast ticking metronome.
‘It’s not too late to get out of it’ I told myself. I was scared.
I was scared of taking an Improvisational Theatre course.
I got duped into it. My best friend, who had taken a 13 week course, had fallen in love with it. She was nudging me to sign up for the next series.
I didn’t budge. I don’t like being told what to do.
But when she dared me, I couldn’t resist. Once I grabbed the bait, there was no way out. ‘After all’, I told myself, ‘if she can do it, so can I.’
Studying improv pushes you out of your comfort zone.
It was all bravado on my part. I know people who are verbally quick and funny at the same time. I’m not one of them.
My wise elder self told the scared child in me that all I had to do was try the class once. If I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to return.
Repeating ‘Yes, I can, Yes, I can’ like The Little Engine That Could is an effective mantra for minimizing fear.
As I walked up the 3 flights of stairs, I kept on telling myself that I could do this. After all, I had studied acting and music, taken lead roles in plays, and loved public speaking.
But this was different. This was like studying classical music my whole life and now being told that I was going to learn how to play and perform jaz
Oh boy, was I ever out of my safety zone!
Once you understand that other students experience fear, it automatically diminishes the force of it.
When I walked into the room, I felt the tension. At least a dozen people were standing around making small talk. I joined in and quickly learned what had motivated each one to take the class. Some came because of friends who recommended it. But several had signed up because they had seen improvisational groups, like Second City or The Groundlings perform. It had ignited something in them.
As soon as the teacher walked in, a young woman with long, curly black hair and a huge smile, everyone stopped talking.
Studying improv teaches positive group dynamics.
After the introductions, she explained that we were all beginners and nobody was judging us. She talked about the importance of trusting and having patience with others as well as ourselves, supporting our fellow students, and the need to risk ourselves and make mistakes if we want to learn improv.
Its foundation is built on rules.
She told us that contrary to what most people think, improv has rules and structure.
“Hmmm, rules” I thought to myself. “This is good. At least I’ll have some structure to guide me.”
RULE #1. Listen and stay in the moment. Focus on what the other person in your scene is saying and ABSOLUTELY do not prepare a witty response.
So you think it sounds easy? Try it and see.
RULE #2 – NO questions are allowed. Nada. Any response has to be a positive one building on what your team member has said to you.
As beginners, we were taught to use ‘yes and’ in part because one of the major tenets of improv is to always support the members of your team. If someone makes a mistake, it’s your job to make her look good and keep the scene going without a hitch.
Doing a simple scene correctly is similar to playing scales on the piano without making mistakes.
For example, here’s a scene about two college students who share a dorm room. Roommate #1 walks into the room and throws her books down on her bed.
Roommate #1: ‘What a long day I’ve had. I’m exhausted and feel like I’m coming down with a cold.
Roommate #2: ‘Yes, I see that your eyes are red. It looks like you could use a good hot bowl of soup.”
Roommate #1: ‘Yes, that would be terrific. I would appreciate some toast and honey with it.
Roommate #2: ‘Yes…and perhaps some cold medicine and going to sleep early would be a smart idea.”
That 4 sentence interchange may sound elementary to you but believe me when you’re new at improv, it isn’t easy to do.
Think about it this way. In a normal conversation, you might respond to your roommate complaining about her cold with ‘I told you that you were working too hard and now look what has happened to you’ or ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’
The first response is negative and doesn’t allow for a conversation to organically grow and perhaps evolve into an interesting story.
The second response, a question, is a reflexive one. You’d be surprised, even when you know the rules of improv, how easy it is to respond with a question. Not allowed.
By the end of the first class, all of us had participated in a scene 3 times. Between each scene, Bobbi made suggestions, noted the good points, and when we broke the rules, we were stopped and told to do it again.
Improv is unadulterated free play.
During these 2 hours, there was a lot of laughter, vulnerability, and a sense of camaraderie and trust developing.
As I raced down those 3 flights of stairs after class to get to my car before my meter ran out and I got a ticket, I felt full of positive energy, excitement, happiness, and knowing that I wanted more of this.
I finally got it. I understood why so many people are madly in love with improv. It’s free play.
I intrinsically felt that improvisation was going to help me build some creativity muscles that I had never used.
I knew that I had hit a home run by listening to my intuition.
1.Take a leap of faith. When you feel fear overtaking you, don’t run from it. Rather have a chat with it. Find out why it’s bothering you. Let the little bugger know that you’re not going to let it stop you from doing what you want to do.
2. Maintain Beginner’s Mind. It’s easy to do in a beginner’s improv class. But even in an area where you may be considered an expert, work at keeping an open, inquisitive, and not ‘know it all’ mind set.
A phrase that my father passed down to me which I love is: “So much not to know.”
3. Embrace mistakes. Get to know and think of them as your guides and mentors. Without them, there’s no way you’ll improve and excel, let alone master anything.
4. Practice listening. Don’t pretend to listen. Really listen. If you catch your brain wandering or creating a pre-response, gently pull it back to the conversation. Take a deep breath and re-focus on what the person is saying.
It’s a skill that can be learned. The more you practice with intent, the better you’ll get.
5. Surrender – let go of control. The moment you give up the notion of needing to impress others is when the fun begins. Not knowing what to say or screwing up is the hallmark of learning your craft. It’s a great opportunity to learn to laugh at yourself.
6. Imagine – when you’re not in class, give your imagination free reign. Think of scenes that make you laugh. Create scenarios that are goofy, paradoxical, real – anything you want them to be. The more you practice using it, the easier it will be to access.
For a great example of a writer using his imagine effectively, check out Johnny B. Truant’s book, The Bialy Pimp.
7. Work your creativity muscles. All of the tips above..1-6…are elements of creativity. If you practice them, before you know it, you’ll be movin’ and groovin’ down creativity lane.
Oh yeh…and did I mention that improv is absolutely rip roaring, hilarious fun?
Wow – what wonderful life lessons, Fran. This must be so enjoyable! I haven’t taken a course, but I participated in a lot of drama activity in college and then later, wherever I lived, we had a little group that would put up shows on various occasions throughout the year (you know we have festivals all the way). I must say that the camaraderie and the level of understanding we gained through interaction with people from different walks of life and age groups was very rewarding. I felt so nostalgic as I read your post today.
As I said in my last post, I always played a male role 😀 in all the plays. One of my most memorable was a french play – my name was Monsieur Riviere, I remember. I recall wearing pants too tight because the right size was not available for the day – and – the backside seam split in one of the scenes. Realizing this, the “maid” in the play immediately brought me my coat, and we added some improvised dialog to that scene. Oh, what fun that was! And we didn’t find a wig on time – so I had applied talcum powder on my hair to look old.
Thank you, Fran – I loved this! And so much more fun than the standard way of learning. I’d love to know more about your own experience there. Hugs. Vidya
Vidya….I was laughing as I read your post. You’re such a visual writer that I could literally see you in those tight pants with the seam splitting and putting putting talcum powder on your head. Oh what fun!
Writing the post also made me nostalgic Vidya. I am going to continue writing about improv in my life – how it developed, and where it lead. It was a powerful force …a wave that swept me up. I LOVED it! xxoo-Fran
Your intro was something everyone can relate to…I felt your pain or should I say fear! It sounds like you had a blast. I think the steps you give can also be applied to writing!
Tess….I agree that it could work for writing. Oh yes indeed, I did have a blast. And this story is just the beginning…to be continued.
No surprise to me Fran that we’re both talking about play. I love your fearlessness in joining the improv group and how you followed your intuition and showed up, despite the butterflies.
I joined a similar group a few years ago, but it wasn’t as much fun as yours, so maybe it’s time to get out there and ‘work my creativity muscle’ again.
Thanks for the great reminder Fran.
Elle….It feels so good to walk through the fear and get on the other side…knowing that it will show up again in the least expected places.
I think that if you want to give it a try again, you should. Do a little up front homework on who is teaching the course, etc. The teacher is a critical factor.
Oh yes…I’m not at all surprised that our posts have similar themes. We’re going to have to meet up and have a day of total play!
Oh, you are my hero today! I have watched improv comedy–just amazing. I really liked the “yes, and…” exercise. That is a good exercise to use in life generally. Well, all the “rules” are, aren’t they? Great post. You rock.
Galen….It sounds like you’re ready to get up on stage and do some improv. You’re right on about improv….everything I learned doing it are tools that I can use in all areas of my life.
It is powerful stuff. I really do believe that businesses, students ….actually everyone can benefit tremendously from learning even basic skills.
Am glad you’ve enjoyed watching improv. It’s hard not to isn’t it? Fran
This does sound like a lot of fun. I’d love to try it.
Well Angela…..Maybe when I’m in your neck of the woods, we can at least check out a performance in NYC. Have a great weekend!
My brother in law is an improv actor and teaches classes like this. He does the “Yes and…” It all makes you feel so happy and connected to the others who take the class. It reminds me of the laughter classes I’ve taken. I’m looking forward to taking one some day.
Betsy…I do remember you mentioning in another post that your brother in law does and teaches improv. What I want to hear about is the ‘laughing’ classes that you’ve taken. That sounds awesome! Fran
Great post. It was also a reminder to me to look into improv classes here.
I sat in on a filmmaking class of a 6 week program I was considering taking earlier this year. The teacher emphasized that everyone should enroll in an improv class. It was the best think you could do for your creativity and writing.
I’m sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I’ve been out of commission for the past week.
So, you sat in on a film making class. Sounds terrific. You were given good advice about taking improv. It strengthens and expands your creative repertoire PLUS it is A LOT of fun! 🙂 Fran
it looks like I compose my thoughts like:
…and yes it works even better this way one hand typing.
…,yes and this must be universal foresight.
…and yes I admire your improv adventure.
…yes and Angela would be fun to share this with.
…and yes as a stagehand I appreciate ‘listen and stay in the moment.’
…yes and ‘Tips’ 1 – 7 are sound elements of creative muscles.
…and yes I do endeavor to use all in being a competent *Meeting Room Operator*.
…yes and *imagine* doing this for a PowerPoint session involving the presentations
…and yes for who ever shows up next?
30) Yes and all the world is a stage with past acts written and new performances played out until the final applause.
…and yes William Shakespeare’s last words on his tombstone:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here!
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones
Thank you Fran for the link…
Rand….This rates as one of the most creative comments I’ve ever read. I smiled, laughed, and re-read a few times.
Do you mind if I use it in the future when I write a post on play? (of course I’ll credit you). With gratitude, Fran
P.S. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I have been out of commission for the last week 🙂
…and yes it looks like I ‘showed up next.’
…yes and I am super happy that you enjoyed my comment!
…and yes being that I don’t have a blog I try to create something redeeming.
…yes and this can be a challenge with the vulnerability of rejection.
…and yes it would make me happy for you to use the comment in a future post 🙂
…and no need to apologize.