Improv is one of the more curious sub-genres of comedy. Where as comedians and sketch acts try to hone in on rock solid material, improv very much hones on the skill set to be quick witted, imaginative but importantly, never the same. Improv courses are increasingly becoming a more common affair, even amongst established stand-ups who still seek new methods to improve their own acts. Cynically, improv groups can be seen as a bit culty and inclusive, as wonderfully satirised in Bojack Horseman mashing improv with scientology. Cynicism aside, the skills learned through improv are not exclusive to the stage, but overlap in everyday life, as the following established improv comedians can attest to in how improv has been a positive experience in their lives.
No one likes small talk. We all feel alone at parties. Pretty much everyone gets anxious about meeting new people. The first thing you learn when improvising is to think about others rather than yourself. When you are in a scene, rather than thinking ‘what shall I say? Will I be funny? What is happening next?’ An improviser learns to concern themselves with their scene partner(s). How to support them, make them look good and listening closely to what they are saying and how they are saying it in order to create great comedy or drama. These skills can be taken into any social situation-and people will respond to positively to you because you’re a great listener. The skills that make a fine improviser also make a great human being, because it’s about teamwork and complicity. The magic happens when we are not filtering ourselves; learning to improvise is actually unlearning so much of adulthood-grown ups filter ourselves all the time because there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ things to say. We worry about judgement. Improvising takes everyone back to a childlike state of creativity and silliness. It is playing with the people around you, and there is no right or wrong. Some people find the idea scary, but the fact is that we all knew how to do this when we were kids, and we should try and keep that joy with us in adulthood.
The first and most important rule of improv is, ‘Yes, And.’ You say…’YES’ to what is in front of you, ‘AND’ you add to it. In real life, our instinct is to say no. If someone in a scene says…’You are the biggest loser around town, Pam!’ our human condition is to say some version of ‘No, I’m not Corey!’ and defend it. In improv you learn to say…’YES, I am the biggest loser around town AND boy did I screw up voting for that orange Cheeto, Trump.’ (Previous sentence completely made up). The YES choice gets you further.
Having performed, taught, and directed improv for over 10 years with the world-famous Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles, you really see how improv’ing is a way of life. I have taught many workshops for corporations (Nike, Google, Disney, Mattel Toys, William Morris-Endeavor, etc…) and have found, without knowing it, team members don’t totally build on ‘yes, and.’ They listen to each other in a pitch meeting, say, and subtly hunt for what is WRONG about the idea presented. Or to get in there with their opinion. Sure, not *always* but it’s very common. So instead of ‘yes, and…’ the response is more…’yeah, but…’ or ‘meh, kinda…’ or ‘no, and no.’ Now, it’s not to say a critical eye isn’t important but if you approach team building with a full YES mentality and an AND, you will find you will hunt for what is working in an idea (even if very small) and build from there. This builds confidence of the presenter and trust with the team as a whole. We do silly improv games where 20 people have to build a story adding ONLY one-word at a time. So no one brain can control it and no one can say NO to the idea/word in front of them. It’s amazing to see what creative stories came out of that!
Also, improv is based on listening and eye contact. You wouldn’t believe how many people don’t really look at each other or really listen. You can’t build a scene out of nothing if you don’t look at each other. So the simple improv games teach that. Many of the Nike employees didn’t speak the same language so all we had was eye contact and body language. Still they could build scenes together.
Improv and making stuff up teaches complete fearlessness and confidence. If you can do it, or even attempt it, you can do anything. I fully use improv rules all the time in life. Like listening. If you really listen to people, you learn who they are quickly. Once on a date instead of just waiting to chime in to talk, I *really* heard him when he said he likes to hike…in the dark…alone. Yeeeaaahhh, cheque please.
Pippa Evans (from The Showstoppers: The Improvised Musical)
Particularly when it comes to weddings when you get put on the awkward table (“Oh Pippa! She’s good with people. Let’s put her with our monosyllabic pals!”). Once I was at my friends wedding and I was sat next to a body builder who didn’t seem up for talking. The person to my right hadn’t turned up and it was way to early to say “I’m just going to go mingle!” so I did what you do in any improv scene, used what was there. “So, you’re a body builder! Do you have to eat anything in particular to get your muscles so massive?”
He didn’t look up, but he replied “Chicken”. “Chicken?” I replied (one improv technique is to repeat something the last person said, to show you heard them and are engaged) “What kind of chicken?” and through the use of closed questions (questions directly related to what has just been said) and spinning out (Going off on a tangent about something but bringing it back to what we were talking about “I remember when my mum made a roast chicken and put sugar on it instead of salt! It was desert and dinner! How do you cook your chicken?”) I managed to have an actually very interesting conversation about chicken with someone who at first, it seemed, we were not gonna get further than “How do you know the happy couple?” Incidentally, if anyone would like to know more about the use of chicken in body building, I can be found in the Pleasance Courtyard every day until Aug 28th.
Graham Dickson (from The Free Association)
Is improv useful off stage? Hell yes. As a master thief I am forever employing the techniques I acquired in my level 2 Scenework in Improv class to tremendous effect. The other day I walked into a bank and improvised half a million pounds straight out of the vaults and into my pockets (whoa! big pockets!) by convincing the teller it was good for the Game of the Scene, and that they must Accept my Offer and Build upon it (‘Yes, And’ guys!), so we could Heighten the Reality towards a successful conclusion: me being rich. As I walked out of the bank, I called ‘Scene’ and waited for the Blackout. It came when I was struck over the back of the head by the security guard.
Normal people can benefit from improv, too. When I’m not lying, I spend almost my entire life improvising or teaching it. Improv is my crusade. I took up arms for the cause because I discovered first-hand what an incredible tool it can be on and off stage. On stage, it made me a better actor. It also turned me on to comedy seriously, and I haven’t looked back since. Off stage, it gave me the confidence to talk to girls and rob banks – sometimes at the same time! It also largely helped me with a stutter which I’ve had since I was a child. It used to be debilitating, and now it’s just the right side of Hugh Grant. But the greatest lesson I’ve learned from improv is learning to trust that you have an inexhaustible well of creativity inside of you, and being creative is important for anyone in any walk of life. I’ve done thousands of bad improv scenes, but the two things all of those terrible scenes have in common are 1) none of them were the same and 2) I never have to do them again, ever. The ephemeral nature of improv can often seem bittersweet, but what it teaches you about honoring your own creative instincts is more valuable than the contents of all the bank vaults I’ve never actually robbed. That’s right, I made it up. Thanks, improv.
Positivity is such a fundamental element of improv, and so it is that side of it that has resonated with me most significantly in other parts of my life. I’m a fundamentally positive person, but on a conversational level I’m pretty negative, so anything that has you working against your behavioural instincts will force you to think differently about how you communicate with people.
Culturally we’re a pretty negative bunch. When someone suggests something or makes some sort of offer, we tend to err on the side of the negative and run through reasons we shouldn’t do something, why it isn’t possible, etc. The number of cups of tea I’ve turned down out of politeness, only to think (less than a second later) that what I meant to say was ‘yes please’… Improv works against those negative instincts, and so as soon as you find yourself within that new method of thinking you’re immediately a more engaged and effective communicator. This can be a huge benefit across the board – “I’m looking at you, uncommunicative men in relationships”.
When I went to university in Canada I arrived with no friends, so unfortunately it was very much a case of “next stop: Improv Club”. I went to the clubs fair and introduced myself to the peppiest, most enthusiastic, intensely-tanned, Canadian man called Martin (Chairperson of the University Improv Club) who’s positivity and kindness hugged me into submission. And it is very much a case of submission… The requirement of failure and of looking-like-a-fool is the element of improv that gives me lower-back-pain, but it’s also so vital to getting better and getting the most out of the experience. It’s an obvious point, but looking like a dummy makes you less afraid of looking like a dummy – in any social situation – “I’m looking at you, uncommunicative men in relationships”.
Sean McCann (from Rhapsodes)
I was once marooned in St Johns Newfoundland for seven days due to blizzards, and Nova Scotia for 5 weeks due to the ash- cloud , so I’m looking forwards to seeing the upcoming stranded-in- Eastern Canada musical “Come From Away”*.
Improv cures aviophobia. True.
Steen Raskopoulos: The Coolest Kid in Competitive Chess at the Underbelly 3rd to 27th August.
Annie Sertich: How To Not Kill Yourself for 30 Days… An The Next 330 at the Pleasance Courtyard 2nd to 27th August
Showstopper! The Improvised Musical at the Pleasance Courtyard 2nd to 28th August.
Graham Dickson: The Narcissist at the Underbelly 3rd to 27th August
Patrick Turpin: Itty Bitty Titty Piece at the Underbelly 3rd to 27th August.
Rhapsodes at the Pleasance Dome 14th to 27th August.