How Improv Taught Me To Be A Better Person

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I decided to take my first improv class about three years ago. When I began, I thought it was fun, but I made the same mistake so many other first-timers make: I thought it should be about me.

I believed that every scene I was in was a vehicle to showcase my own cleverness. Whenever my scene partner was talking, I was panicking within my own brain, trying desperately to think of what to say next. I wasn’t listening to my scene partner. Worse, I didn’t even realize it.

After the class had ended I received some feedback from my instructor.

“You need to listen more to what you scene partner is saying.”

At first I felt defensive, but when I thought back on certain moments from the class, I realized that it was true. I thought back to one scene in particular in which I had played Beyoncé. I was awkwardly dancing around the room, trying to impersonate a fussy celebrity.

Although the scene may have been amusing to an audience, it wasn’t a true exchange between two people. It was me, and consequently my scene partner, trying unnecessarily hard to figure out our own next moves.

Here I should clarify.

It isn’t that these types of scenes are somehow “in bad form” because they don’t abide by a set of arbitrary rules created by some pretentious group of master improvisers somewhere.

It means that the dynamics of the situation, as they occur in real time, make no sense to an audience.

Why are these characters together if they aren’t communicating properly, the audience wonders. What could possibly be funny about this?

And by the time an audience starts to wonder if the people onstage are nervous, the scene might as well be over.

If this sounds harsh, consider it this way: no one wants to be around inauthentic people who mince their words and constantly call reality into question.

If an audience is not being entertained by the spectacle, then it likely is nonsensical and it isn’t funny. In other words, there are truths behind the rules that are inherent to good improv.

Of course, not everyone can be true to form all the time. The reality is that all improvisors, from beginners to seasoned professionals, fall into bad form sometimes, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing because rules are meant to be broken.

Some instances of “bad prov” include: not listening to other characters, trying to be funny, stealing the spotlight, appearing apathetic, and failing to commit to decisions. When improvisers begin to doubt their moves, the audience notices.

Once, I found myself in the midst of a scene, embarrassed because everyone was watching me and I had no idea where it was going. I feared the worst and didn’t want to weather the discomfort any longer. So I edited myself out of the scene. I yelled “cut” and exited.

When I did this, our coach laughed.

“You aren’t allow to edit yourself out of a scene,” he said, “only someone from the back line can do that.”

It’s always best to end early, on a high note, rather than wait too long. This support, whether it’s ending the scene or adding to it, will invariably make the scene funnier. By definition, improvisers are both actors and co-creators. Everyone gets to add ideas and no one’s ideas are ignored.

As an improviser, you learn to adapt to new information as it is being tossed out in real time. If you don’t, then you will appear to ignore or negate what has come before. Undermining reality in improv is, overall, not a good idea.

This is the opposite of “yes anding”.

I am guilty of this; of rejecting my scene partner’s “gifts”. I have reacted negatively to decisions that took me by surprise because they weren’t my own.

When this happens, I’ll usually notice my negative response and calculate how to fix it. But, by that point, I’ve already lost the thread of the conversation. I’ve been in my own head too long.

You can’t not like someone in your group because you’ll be paired with everyone eventually. You can’t sit back and judge other people’s actions for too long because any moment you’ll be under the hot seat as well.

This is what I love about improv: you and someone else — often a stranger — step out in front of an audience and act like you’re old friends playing a game that could go anywhere and which you know will be supported by a line of people behind you who are listening. The audience thinks watching this is magical — as long as you keep up the pretense and believe in what you’re doing.

When someone asks you why you are doing something or acting in a certain way, you have to answer truthfully. You have to say what you are thinking — no lying or suppressing. A scene can still function if you don’t, but the audience won’t understand the motivation behind that behavior and it won’t be as funny.

The other night in our practice group, our coach was explaining this concept to us.

“You want to get to the heart of the scene, and you can’t do that if you don’t come clean about what you’re up to.”

He thought for a second.

“I guess that would be helpful in real life,” he said. “But I’m not here for that.”

Flannery has a PhD in Comparative Literature. She teaches French, Italian, and visual media. Her book on Taiwanese cinema can be found on Amazon.

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