One day last February, in the midst of a bout with the winter doldrums, I made a spur-the-moment decision to sign up for improv classes with ColdTowne Theater, a fabulous improv training center and alternative comedy venue in Austin, Texas. I have been a fan of comedy since I can remember, and as a kid I spent far too many hours in front of the television watching reruns of SNL, MADtv, Who’s Line Is It Anyway, and Comedy Central Presents. I never considered trying it myself until that day in February, when a perfect storm of boredom and excess creative energy came together and led me to make one of the best decisions of my life; not only for my own personal creative fulfillment, but for my career as well. Improv classes are fun. I spend 2 hours a week being goofy, and I would recommend it for the stress-relief benefits alone. However, improv has also challenged me in ways that I did not expect, and has taught me lessons that are applicable to life and career beyond the stage. Here are just a few:
You’re probably familiar with the basic tenet of improv: “Yes, and…” This phrase is meant to serve as a reminder for improvisers to accept the reality that your scene partner is creating, regardless of how you saw the scene going in your head. It’s the idea that the scene you create together is more important than your individual vision, so leave your ego at the door. Off stage, this philosophy has made me more open minded. It’s easy to say “no” to an idea that’s new or outside of your comfort zone, but rejecting new ways of thinking means that you won’t move forward, just as saying “no” to your partner’s idea in a scene means that the story won’t progress. Learning to say “yes” to new ideas, in others and myself, has made me a better coworker, friend, and all-around human being.
When people find out that I take improv classes, their first reaction is usually something along the lines of “I could never think of something funny to say on the spot!” I usually just laugh and let them continue thinking that I’m some kind of witty, comedic genius, but I’ll let y’all in on a little secret: improv isn’t about coming up with funny one liners. In fact, really bad improv is usually the result of people trying too hard to think of something clever to say. The most valuable advice I’ve gotten in class? Listen. Slow down, listen to your scene partner, react honestly to what they’re saying and trust that you’ll find the funny together. Often, miscommunications at work or in life are the result of not listening. We’re so focused on our own thoughts, our own perspective, and what we want to say, that other people get lost in the process. Taking a deep breath, and making a conscious effort to focus on another person, strengthens relationships, improves communication and makes for a healthier, happier and more efficient workplace environment.
A ‘Mistake’ Can Be a Gift
I’m really bad at accents. Like, really bad. Every so often I’ll work up the courage to play a character with an accent in a scene. Sometimes it works, but sometimes I completely butcher the accent, or fall out of it. I used to get down on myself about this, wondering why my British accent always sounds like someone from the Jersey Shore, but this “mistake” has led to some funny scene moments. Once, while I was supposedly playing a police officer in London, my British accent had a layover in New Jersey, and decided to stay there. My scene partner called this out, and instead of lamenting myself for my inferior accent impersonation skills, I owned my mistake, and became an officer who just moved to London from Jersey – which changed the whole nature of the scene, and I’d argue, made it more fun. What we perceive as “mistakes” can open us up to new ways of thinking, and create opportunities that we otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. However, you’ll miss all of this if you’re busy beating yourself up over every misstep. Learn from your mistakes, but also forgive yourself, and be open to the opportunities they can create.
Trust Your Instincts
To warm up in class, we sometimes play a word association game that involves standing in a circle, and saying the first thing that comes to mind. One person starts by saying a word, then the person next to them says the first word that the first person’s word makes them think of, and so on, and so on, all around the circle. The purpose of this game is to drop the instinct to come up with something especially clever or smart, and just say the first word that pops into your brain. In improv, it’s really easy to get inside your head – “Is what I’m saying funny?” “Is my accent awful?” “What if I completely blank?” – but when you overthink, you make improv harder than it actually is. If you trust your gut, and stop thinking so much, usually you’ll find that your instincts will lead you in the right direction – on stage and off. I can’t tell you how many times writing a blog or a press release has taken me longer than it should have because I’ve been agonizing over word choice in my head. Sometimes, it’s best to just turn off all the voices that are telling you to doubt yourself, and do/write/say what comes naturally. I think you’ll find that as soon as you stop telling yourself you’re not good enough, exciting things will happen.
For me, improv has been an outlet for creative expression and a great source of joy. It’s also taught me valuable lessons that have improved my confidence, strengthened my public speaking and writing skills, and made me a better friend and coworker. Improv might not be for everyone, but if this blog has intrigued you even a little, I urge you to sign up for a workshop or a class. If you’re local to Austin, ColdTowne Theater offers a FREE Improv 101 class the first and third Monday of every month.