Improv: Art Imitates Life

What are the first words that come to your mind when you think of improv? Probably something along the lines of “humour,” “spontaneity,” “confidence,” or “creativity,” right? Like me, you probably associated those words with a stage and an audience.

Because of my own preconceived ideas, what I thought I knew about improv (see above paragraph), I never pictured myself doing it. To be quite frank, doing improv terrifies terrified me. Getting up to talk in front of people with nothing prepared at all? I’ll take a hard pass.

Ready for the surprise of your life? This past Saturday I spent my afternoon at a drop-in improv class, led by Jay at The Making Box. 

Ok, now ready for the actual surprise of your life? This class was, in fact, my second foray into improv. Because if at first you don’t completely break down from nervousness, try and try again, am I right?

At the start of our class, Jay asked us to try to convey what we were feeling in one word. These feelings ranged from “uncomfortable,” and “apprehensive,” to “stoked,” “jacked,” and “delighted.” Guess which end of the spectrum I was on?

It was interesting to see how, as the class progressed, our feelings were gradually stripped of the definitions we had given them. Regardless of how we initially defined the energy we brought in, we all brought in some form of energy.  At its core, improv operates on energy. Even nervous energy.

What is “improv,” exactly?

Broadly, improv — or improvisational theatre — is a form of theatre where nearly the entire story is created collaboratively by the players at the moment it is performed.

Practicing improv involves exercises designed to sharpen an actor’s ability to think on his or her feet and to collaborate in a seamless way with their cast mates.

 

Laurie O’Brien, “Something Wicked – Jumping off a Cliff with Improv Comedy”

My experience with and knowledge of improv is quite limited. Yet, these classes are teaching me that the qualities of decent improvisers are very similar to the qualities of decent human beings.

Indeed, the fundamental components of improvisational theatre are also fundamental components of life off-stage as well. After all, life is all about improvisation — we each live out our own personal series of improv acts every day.

So, I guess I know a little bit more about improv than I initially thought. Enough to know that I need and want to learn more. In the meantime, I’ve done my best to reflect on what the fabulous folks at The Making Box are teaching me:

1. Forget about being funny.

Before we began our first exercise, Jay told our class that “funny” is not the goal of improv. Rather, “funny” is the by-product of what can come from listening, collaborating, sharing, and creating together in a safe and supportive environment. Going straight for a laugh is not always the best choice:

That’s not the way improv works. If everybody was on their own joke island, looking for the next opportunity to say something funny, then we’d be in competition with each other, and we’d be focusing on making jokes instead of focusing on building a scene.

 

Mark Alford, founding member of Something Wicked

In life, striving towards our goals is significantly less stressful – and more enjoyable – when we truly believe that success (however you define it) comes organically from the environments we work to create for and around ourselves.

2. Listen to understand.

We connect most deeply and create communities most easily with those who listen to us. Those who make us feel understood and who genuinely understand us. In improv, if you don’t fully listen to what is being said by your fellow team members, you will not be successful in creating a coherent dialogue together.

Likewise, in life, it’s important that we listen not just to respond, but to understand. Say you’re having a conversation, and something the other person says suddenly sparks a thought that you get really excited to share. Now, that response is all you can think about as that person continues to talk — as they share more details with you, you’re not really hearing them because you’re just waiting for your time to shine. Before you know it, you’ve driven the conversations to a dead-end. You hastily brush past what the other person is trying to say because you’re too eager to share your own thoughts on the matter.

Conversely, if you listen to others with the intention of understanding what they are saying, you will naturally respond in more supportive ways. By listening to another person in this way, you will make them feel that what they’re saying is valuable to you, and in turn, that person  will feel valued.

3. Accept what is given to you, and add to it.

Building from point #2, one of the central tenets of improv is always saying “yes, and…” — or accepting the contributions of your collaborators and offering your own contributions in return:

In the “Yes, and” version of improv, an approach that demands you agree with any premise, no matter how absurd, offered up by your fellow performers, anything that is handed to you can be a gift. It’s just a matter of how you use it.

 

Martin Rickman, How Improv Helped Me Find My Own Character

“Yes, and…” is about acceptance and addition. It’s about accepting what has been said, and subsequently adding to it. It’s about understanding the person you’re speaking with, and being inspired by them. It’s about collaborating and creating an enriching, mutually-beneficial conversation together.

Combined with the tenet that there is no such thing as failure, “yes, and…” is the magic ingredient for building a good improv scene. Not surprisingly, it is also the magic ingredient for building good, productive conversations.

For example, in the context of relationships — be them romantic, familial, friendly, or otherwise — when both parties practice saying “yes, and…” our ability to empathize and be fully present with one another increases:

It turns out that improv comedy and relationships have a lot in common. You see, both involve a partnership where two people are willing to commit, communicate, and work together to move forward. Plus, both improv and relationships aren’t scripted, and they’re incredibly unpredictable.

 

Hannah Collins, “Taking an Improv Comedy Class Made Me a Better Girlfriend” 

Wait…so what is “improv,” exactly?

“Through spontaneity, we are re-formed into ourselves.”

 

Viola Spolin, originator of the improvisational Theater Games

We improvise our lives every day. We can’t anticipate how our days will unfold — who we will meet, what kinds of questions we will be asked, and subsequently how we will respond to these questions. We don’t have scripts.

Often, we try to force “scripts” into our lives. I’m guilty of this for sure. I try so hard to plan, plan, plan…and subsequently get discouraged when a particular plan falls through, or when other people don’t follow that plan.

Improv necessarily involves casting aside the script, being spontaneous, and living in the moment. What I didn’t realize is that it also involves living in moments together and creating supportive spaces that give all participants the freedom to express themselves without fear. Through these lessons in improv, I’m beginning to see the value in casting aside the “script.”

For example, I can see how these lessons will help me become a better researcher. I’m part of a community-driven initiative in the Inuit community of Rigolet, and most of what I do involves interviewing and interacting with community members to collaboratively determine research priorities. The interviews I conduct  — which are really just guided conversations — are not about gathering responses to a set of questions. Rather, these interviews are about exploring perspectives and ideas. The questions are tools that drive the interview forward, not the driving force of the interview itself.

Going into an interview with a pre-developed list of questions can be a good starting point. However, asking these questions in a specific order, and in the same order for every interview you conduct, is not always necessary. Doing so is not always productive or beneficial to the interviewer, let alone the interviewee.

One of the most beautiful feelings in life is when a conversation takes a direction you never anticipated and leads you to a completely new understanding of your initial ideas. For this to happen, you can’t just respond to what is being said. Instead, you have to truly  understand what the other person is saying, and think about how you will move the conversation forward together. Rather than extracting information, good conversations are about collaboratively creating new information.

I can also see how these lessons in improvisation are also lessons in trusting others, and in trusting yourself. There is something to be said about loosening up a little in a room full of strangers and trusting them to accept you. There is also something to be said about trusting yourself to try something new and risk failure. The beauty of improv is that you will inevitably make mistakes, and you will inevitably laugh about them.

Truthfully, I don’t know what exactly drew me to attend my first class at The Making Box. Perhaps it was a combination of curiosity and naivety. Or perhaps it was a decision made in a fleeting moment of unfounded confidence. Either way, after that decision was made, panic ensued. I thought about backing out many times. I’m glad I didn’t.

Life is better, easier, more fulfilling when it is improvised. Translating and incorporating the core principles of improvisation into our everyday conversations and interactions can help us all build deeper and stronger connections, relationships, and communities.

The art of improv does, in fact, imitate life.

 

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