Improvisational theatre

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 #2DO 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.

 Theatre Sports  – This form of improvisational theatre was founded by Keith Johnstone, who I brought to Philadelphia for an intense learning weekend for our improv community, in the late 90s. Keith came up with the concept of Theatre Sports based on observations of techniques used in professional wrestling that elicited audience reaction. The one thing that stood out about Keith’s teaching (and there are many wonderful pieces to him) is that gags and corniness lower the quality of scenes. His mission was to guide improvisers in creating collaborative storytelling. Whenever someone tried to be funny, Keith would tell that the trick is to just stay in the moment and ‘be boring’. Sounds ridiculous? Guess what? It works.


Comedy Sportz– Started in 1984 in Milwaukee, this is a form of improvisational theatre that has teams of players competing against each other and taking suggestions from the audience. I studied it for a few years and found it to be incredibly helpful. It is fast paced and competetive. If you know the show ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’, then you have a feel for what this type of improv is about. There are dozens of Comedy Sportz franchises throughout the country. In Philadelphia Comedy Sportz is the longest running comedy show in Philadelphia.


Paul Sills Wisconsin Theatre Game Center– Paul Sills was one of the original founders of Second City. I was lucky enough to have studied with him at a 5 day intensive at his place in Wisconsin prior to his death. His wife, Carol, who collaborated with Paul on much of the theatre games and is well versed in her own right, now teaches intensives during the summer. It’s worth checking out.


Sketch Comedy to View on You Tube-


 Mike Nichols and Elaine May– They inspired a generation of us with their urbane wit. To this day, their sketch comedy is some of the best around.
Here are 2 of my favorite Nichols and May sketches but there are several more fantastic ones.


The first is Total Mediocrity Award at the 1959 Emmys

The second is the Mother/Son Skit

Final Note

Every major city is oozing with comedy clubs and improvisational theatre performances and classes. Attend some performances of local improv. comedy troupes. And if you feel the urge, go for it – especially if you’re afraid!!  And remember, leave your ego at the door. You’ll have a lot more fun if you do!


Now it’s your turn! Have you ever studied improv or do you have the deep desire to do so? Tell us about it!!

If you liked this post, please share it with others on social media. It’s good karma all the way around- xo

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