Life Lessons on the Improv Stage
Originally written in 2013.
I recently changed jobs and I was smart enough to negotiate one
week off between the two jobs. (also not smart enough to negotiate more than one week off.) My default relaxation mode is watching mindless television shows and punting around online, in my pajamas, on the bed. This leads to an unstable cycle where I sleep very late and as a result, wake up very late. Plus, multiple episodes of Walking Dead tend to make my mind mush. I was keen on not dealing with a mush brain during this break. I also wanted to step outside my comfort zone so I signed up for Intensive Improv Classes at Upright Citizens Brigade.
Dictionaries define Improv is the art of improvising. My week long immersion into it has lead me to the conclusion that improv is actually the art of listening.
To be a good improv artist, one needs to be physically and mentally present on that stage. In my class, the best Improv scenes were where the performers listened to each other and built on each other. The scenes where performers had their own jokes or ideas prepared, quickly fell flat because they didn’t tie together with their partner’s improv lines. This is a difficult lesson to internalize without enough practice (and gentle scolding). On stage, the natural human tendency is to say the best lines and do what one can to make oneself look good. But this is counter-intuitive to Improv! Improv is about making the other people on stage look good. Listening to their lines and giving them great ones in return. Providing rich fodder to one another. What’s mind-blowing is that this rule goes beyond the stage and Improv…. doesn’t it. Some of my best scenes throughout the course were where I was playing a supporting role and actively making the others around me look good. Those were also the scenes that elicited the most laughs.
Another thing I took away from my classes is that (surprisingly) Improv is NOT about being funny or telling jokes. Again, this is counter-intuitive to what I assumed would be the crux of Improv. Our instructors repeatedly chided us for not having won the license to be fantastical or imaginative with our audiences unless we have established a base reality. A who, what, where. And even after establishing context, the scenes needed to build in an organic, natural manner within the reality of the world that has been established in the scene. Using jokes to get a laugh out of our audiences was a cop out — one that was very easy to try to fall back on. Interestingly, the rules of journalism (and even strategy!) are the about establishing context.
“Play to the top of your intelligence,” is a phrase I heard constantly during my program. It was easier to try to act dumb to elicit a few laughs on the Improv stage. But that meant, we aren’t being truthful to ourselves or to the stage. Improv performances treat the audience and the performer as intelligent and smart folks. Folks that can smell bullshit. This was the most difficult trick to not succumb to. I won’t be lying if I say that the thought of playing the dumb kid or the stereotypical immigrant didn’t cross my mind several times during our practice sessions.
My major breakthrough came in class #3. I am a confident person and not afraid of falling flat on my face. But even then, it was difficult to give up all inhibitions and not feel conscious of playing a monkey, a warthog or a 2 year old boy on the stage. Giving up those inhibitions was liberating because it stopped me from taking myself too seriously and allowed me to give my 100% to the stage. Also, I was able to do a better job of listening and reacting to my partner.
These are universal truths though, aren’t they? Listen, be present, be selfish about making others around you look good, play to the top of your intelligence….Kinda cool that I learned these on the stage. Cheaper than traveling around the world in search of exotic stories and adventures to basically learn these same truths. no? (although I will still travel around the world)
What was most beautiful about last week for me is that I constantly surprised myself. I’ll be thirty soon and there’s not much I don’t know about myself but it was nice to be surprised by my own abilities and my capacity to still have a sense of wonder about new ideas.
The process of learning in itself is a wondrous thing. I started with learning the foundational building blocks, practiced them, and then began layering them on top of each other to make something. And then I watched some Improv performances and deconstructed them to identify the building blocks they used and how fast and well they used them. This gentle spooling and un-spooling is true of any new skill I’ve attempted to learn in the last few years: fiction writing, swimming, bicycling and now improv. The word that kept coming to mind: layercake.