Photo by Steven Debono
“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 in the book, “The Little Engine That Could”, helped calm my nerves.
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 jazz.
Oh boy, was I ever out of my safety zone!
Once you understand that other students are experiencing fear, it automatically diminishes the power it has over you.
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.
RULE #2– DO NOT plan a witty response while the other person is talking.
RULE #3– Let the other person finish what they’re saying before configuring your response. This is a terrific practice in mindfulness.
So you think it sounds easy? Try it and see.
RULE #4 – NO questions are allowed. Nada. Any response has to be a positive one building on what your team member has said to you.
RULE #5-As beginners, you’re 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. Also, when you respond with YES AND, you’re opening up and expanding upon what the other person has said. It allows for a more exciting and vibrant scene to take place.
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, and 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 grow organically and 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, the teacher, 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 and vulnerability: we quickly began developing a sense of trust and camaraderie.
As I raced down those 3 flights of stairs after class to get to my car before I got a ticket, I felt childlike joy, excitement, and a knowing that I wanted more of this.
I finally 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.
And most importantly, I knew that I had hit a home run by listening to my intuition.
7 Ways That Studying Improv Crunches Your Creativity Muscles
Improv empowers you to:
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.
7. Trust your instincts – If your success in life has been based on using the logical side of your brain to get ahead, put on your seat belt. One of the greatest lessons that improv. teaches is to trust your instincts. Yes, you’re going to make terrible gaffes sometimes and probably feel that you’ve made a fool of yourself. If you don’t go for broke and listen inside, then you’re playing it safe and not learning the craft of improv. with intent. The upside of trusting your instincts is that when you do hit a home run, it is the high of all highs. And more importantly, you’re working relentlessly on learning to trust your instincts, which will serve you well in all areas of your life.
Oh yeh…and did I mention that improv is absolutely rip roaring, hilarious fun?
Sources to learn more about Improvisational Theatre
Books Worth Reading:
The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionized American Comedy, Janet Coleman
Impro: Improvisation and Theater, Keith Johnstone
Improvisation for the Theater: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques, Viola Spolin
Theater Games for the Classroom: A Teachers Handbook, Viola Spolin
Sources for Studying Improv:
Second City – Second City is the mecca for studying improv.
Here’s a snippet of history taken from its website:
“The Second City opened its doors on a snowy Chicago night in December of 1959. No one could have guessed that this small cabaret theatre would become the most influential and prolific comedy theatre in the world.
With its roots in the improvisational games of Viola Spolin, The Second City developed an entirely unique way of creating and performing comedy. Founded by Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, along with Howard Alk and Bernie Sahlins, The Second City was experimental and unconventional in its approach to both theatre and comedy. At a time when mother-in-law jokes were more the fashion, The Second City railed against the conformist culture with scenes that spoke to a younger generation.”
If you’re lucky enough to live in Chicago, Toronto, or Hollywood, you can take a weekly course.
For those of you who live out of town and have got the improv itch, you’re in for a treat. Chicago’s Second City offers 3 DAY INTENSIVES. No experience necessary. It’s a phenomenal opportunity. I took it years ago and it changed my life.
Here’s the schedule-
Basic training in three days for adults at Second City
Want to immerse yourself in some Second City Training, but don’t have eight weeks? Intensive classes are three days of fast-paced improvisation and/or writing training for those who can’t take a weeklong program or want a quick brush up on skills. Choose a schedule of all-improv, all-writing or improv-writing combination of classes. Tuition includes a Second City show.
- All-Improv Intensive – 10 AM – 4 PM
An intensive look at the principles and processes of improvisation for beginning performers.
- All-Writing Intensive – 10 AM – 4 PM
An introduction to sketch comedy techniques including characterization, comic premise and story structure.
- Improv & Writing Intensive – 10 AM – 4 PM
Morning principles and processes of improvisation class and afternoon introduction to sketch comedy technique class.
Tuition: Each Intensive is $299.
The Groundlings – It was started in 1974 by Gary Austin with whom I was lucky enough to study with at a week long improv camp in upstate New York years ago. Groundlings improv training has launched the careers of some major performers. I didn’t see any intensive weekend offerings on its site so for out of towners, it’s a no go. But if you live in a town where improv courses are being taught by some one who is a graduate of The Groundlings, if they’ve studied and taken more than the basic class, it’s probably worth taking a class with them.
Like Second City, they offer sketch writing as well as performance. What they also offer are classes for teens between the ages of 11-17.
Sketch Comedy to View on You Tube-
The second is the Mother/Son Skit
If you liked this post, please share it with others on social media. It’s good karma all the way around- xo
I have loved the work of Viola Spolin and her son Paul Sills since the early 1970s, starting with the two Story Theatre shows on Broadway. Thank you for offering us a view of their work through a spiritual lens. You inspire me to take an Improv class for the first time in years and years.
Josh- as I wrote this article I thought to myself ‘I’ve got to take improv. again. will be in NYC late March-early April. Let’s catch up and perhaps do a walk in class together. You game???
Fantastically written article. I may have missed it in my read, but where was the class and who was teaching? The techniques and references are very similar to IN Studios (@IN_Studios) in New York, right down to the Elaine May adoration. Improvisational Theater (acting without a script) is so much rarer to find than Improv Comedy (writing on your feet). It sounds like you had a fantastic Improvisational Theater experience!
Israel- The original class that i was describing in the story took place in Philadelphia. It was taught by a lovely woman by the name of Bobbi Block, who at that time was part of the Comedy Sportz teaching staff. BUT I also took several other improv classes, including PlayBack Theatre (which I didn’t mention in the article). I studied with keith Johnstone, Gary Austin, Michael Gelman, and Paul Sills, amongst others- up at his place in Wisconsin. Yes, I am well schooled in Elaine May and Mike Nichols- having attended and graduated from The University of Chicago makes the history of The Compass and Second City that much sweeter. I actually have old LPs of Mike Nichols/Elaine May, Mort Sahl, and some other great ones. I’m going to be in NYC in late March. Will check out IN Studios. If they have walk in classes, I’ll attend. Improv is truly nutrition for the soul (of course you already know that)!!! And yes, studying improv changed my life. I love seeing that they now have classes for teens at Second City and Groundlings BUT would I ever love to see it instituted in the public school curriculum from elementary school on up through high school. Talk about a powerful tool for developing interpersonal and intra-personal skills. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Israel. ~Fran