The Things that Improv Taught Me

1. Contribute or die. The first rule of Improv is there are no rules. The second rule of Improv is that just kidding there is one rule and that rule is always say yes. The third rule is okay so there are actually three rules and they are: no rules, say yes, and then add something.

When your partner makes an offer, you say yes to that offer. If you get up on stage and you two are given the setting “a park” and you walk up to the other person shady as shit because you’re about to try to sell them drugs in the park and they instead speak first and in the voice of a child asking you to push them on a swing, you do not sell that child drugs. You instead forget everything you thought you knew about that scene and you transform yourself into another child, a babysitter, a teacher, a parent–any able bodied person who can push that child on that swing.

Then you say and. If you simply accept the offer of being children in a park and offer nothing else to the scene, then you are just two people standing on a stage pretending to be on a swing in a park. But if you add something to your partner’s offer–perhaps you identify the child as your daughter–then maybe you are trying to tell her that she’s going to have a little brother or sister, then maybe you have to explain to her how babies are made, and maybe she’s confused because how is that possible since daddy’s still in prison? Who knows! But now the scene has momentum and that is so exciting.

The opposite of yes, and… is saying no. If you say no–if you show up in that park and you tell that child “nope, my joke’s funnier, I’m about to sell you drugs”–or if you say yes and then contribute nothing, you have more certainty and more control, but that certainty is this: nothing is going to happen and no progress is going to be made. You will not move backward, but you will not move forward. You will not be hurt and you will not know rejection, but you will undermine your partner and you will not be changed.

Keith Johnstone, one of the fathers of improvisational theatre, articulated it so wonderfully when he said: “There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes,’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘No.’ Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”

2. Kids have the right idea. There is so much that we are taught as we progress through adulthood that is counter-intuitive to the tenets of Improv. This is mostly why Improv can be so deathly terrifying (fears, in order: spiders, every strange man I’ve ever shared an elevator alone with, Improv and death). Society, our jobs, basic human decency, they all teach us to plan ahead, think of the future, make cautious and educated decisions, and of course: DON’T SUCK. There is so much pressure to succeed all the time that it can actually be stagnating. Improv, in a way, is just the opposite. It tells you to go crazy, just try (go on and do it!), don’t think: speak, fail: you’ll be fine, and all those other things that are really hard and terrifically terrifying.

If you ever wonder what it might be like to not have this need to self-edit, spend some time with a child. Not like, ditch all your friends and take up with a gang of ruthless four year olds, but seriously: when a child tells a story, they do not think about the end until they get there and they show no fear in that unknown. They do not try to be creative they just allow themselves to be and that’s what makes them creative. It’s this uninhibited, fearless, beautiful thing that we are eventually encouraged to grow out of. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of things about kids that are the worst, like not paying bills, shitting in their pants, and being terrible listeners. and of course, it is sometimes really important to do things that adults should do, like think before speaking when arguing with someone you love. But what if you adopt the wonderful qualities children have, like being in the present, seeing where it takes you, being less afraid of the future or letting go of the need to know the right answer to everything? What would we be capable of? What would we discover?

“I think it’s very important–no matter what you may do professionally–to keep alive some of the healthy interests of your youth. Children’s play is not just kids’ stuff. Children’s play is rather the stuff of most future inventions.” -Mr. Rogers (cardigan enthusiast and all-around badass)

3. Embrace the fear and trust the process. I did a scene with a guy named Jackson where we were given the setting “barbershop”. He sat in front of me, I “sprayed” his hair with a “water bottle”, “combed” and began “cutting” his hair. He told me he had asked out a girl and he was so excited to go on a date for the first time in a long time. Questions were asked and answers followed: he met the girl in his church group, he had invited her over to his house for dinner, he was going to cook her spaghetti. The scene was mundane and directionless. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t doing much.

There is a hot flush of panic you feel in your face when a scene has yet to figure out what direction it’s going in. It’s like a constant nagging in the scene, even though you have no time, in that moment, to analyze what you’re feeling–no time to wonder where the scene will go, or how I can make this “better”? All you can do is commit to what you don’t know.

So there Jackson and I were, plodding along steadily with more and more details materializing. I eventually changed what I was doing, put my “scissors” and “comb” down on my “cart”, put my hands on his shoulders and told Jackson that the date was going to go great and the girl would be crazy not to fall madly for him. Then, only knowing what I was going to say at the moment I said it, I offered with great sympathy, “I know you’ve been really nervous about dating ever since your wife was murdered.”

Now would be a good time for a quick aside: another thing I learned from Improv is that nothing is as hilarious as it was in the moment that it happened (see number 10 below). But let me tell you this: this moment was hilarious.

That line – that sudden shift from a sweet scene about a man excited to go on a date to the twist of his wife being murdered – was so surprising and shocking and terrible that Jackson and I laughed so hard we had to end the scene. In fact, since I’d like to be totally honest with you people, I barely even got the line out of my mouth I was already laughing (so I am really twisted and laugh at my own jokes).

I realized that I had spent so much time in that scene asking myself “where the hell is this going?” only to learn that fear was worth the risk. It was worth it to get us to that gem. All those questions your subconscious asks like is this even funny? what if no one likes this? when will this torture end?? It was all worth the risk of sticking with it. Even if the scene fails miserably, the euphoria of success–no matter how fleeting–is the reward for risking failure. So embrace the fear and trust the process.

4. Failure is growth. Every time you fail (and let’s you and I accept the fact that, as humans, this will happen and often), you will have something to learn from. So stop thinking in terms of being worthless, and start thinking in terms of being given the opportunity to learn.

Sometimes, failure is an opportunity for a hilarious joke (“hilarious” being totally subjective here, of course). In a scene I did with three other people, the others sat in two rows of two chairs on stage. One of the seats in front was left open for me as I went off stage. The scene began and the group started to establish the setting. They were sitting in a car, waiting to go on a road trip. Since the open seat was the driver’s seat, and since I was the only person in the scene not on stage, they were waiting for me to come and drive them somewhere. While backstage, I saw one of the theatre’s props, a wheelchair, and immediately decided THIS HAS TO BE PART OF THIS SCENE. Accordingly, as I walked out on stage, I rolled it out with me.

Now, if I had had more time to prepare, I would have realized it had no place in this scene: three people had just walked on stage to “get in a car”, and I, also an able-bodied person, had just walked out on stage with an empty wheelchair. So what exactly was the wheelchair for??

I immediately became embarrassed, then scrambled to find a way to justify the prop that I had introduced. Not only was the audience expecting this, but so too were my scene-mates. So I said the first thing I thought of, and (judge me again for my wickedness, but) that thing was: “so, you guys ready to go cruising for some handicapped people??”

I took a risk, and my partners were incredible. They cheered and hollered at how excited they were. They’d been waiting all day! From my mistake came a fantastic scene of us driving around looking for new handicapped friends. We discovered that one girl was really upset we were doing this, but only because she had no legs, was someone we picked up the last time we did this, and was secretly jealous.

5. Trust your partner and be a partner to be trusted. When you say “yes and” to your partner, you are establishing trust with them. If you come on stage and say no, the as-yet-unknown scene will be that much scarier to your partner. They won’t know where it’s going, they won’t want to offer you anything because you’ll reject it, and they’ll be embarrassed to share the stage with you.

In a scene between a teacher and a student, wherein they got into a scuffle, the teacher announced that she’d won.

“No,” the student replied, “you didn’t because I have a gun [a prop not yet introduced into the scene] and I just shot you and you’re dead.”

Naturally, what was truly dead in that moment was the scene. It’s not entirely fair to call this kid an asshole (though he did recently have a Groupon for his dinner+magic show [no. joke.]) but the point is that he rejected and corrected his partner, and after that, everyone was wary of being in a scene with him.

You have to trust your partner, and the best way to do that is to be a partner to be trusted. If you are constantly putting yourself or your ideas first, or considering only your needs and disregarding your partner’s, you will find yourself out of partners. If, however, you make the sacred and unspoken pact that no matter what–even if you were going in a totally different direction–you will say yes to your partner’s offer, that you will help your partner and join them whole-heartedly on the journey of the unknown to make the scene “work”, your partner will do the same for you and all will be right with the world.

6. You will need to be forgiven. Be forgiving. Part of being a good partner is forgiving early and often. There are times where someone will say something that doesn’t quite work or seems too obvious, and your instinct might be to be disappointed or to judge them. But know that every time you do this instead of forgiving and supporting them immediately, the more you are asking to be judged when you do the same (and let’s all get real for a second: you will do the same). And if no one else is judging you, you will be so judgmental of yourself assuming that everyone else is judging you since you just assume that that’s a thing that people do.

So be forgiving. It’s the only way to get away with asking for forgiveness.

7. You don’t always know what’s best. Despite your convictions, despite where you’re sure the scene is going or should go, you may not always know what’s best. You may enter into a scene with convictions, someone else may speak before you and change everything, and you may have to let go of everything and follow them. You may even find that the scene ends up being funnier than you could have imagined. So accept the fact that you don’t always know what’s best. To do this you must practice humility, patience, and learn the benefits of letting go.

8. Wear comfortable shoes. One time when I was at the doctor’s office to get a pap smear (you’re welcome), my gynecologist walked in the room and complimented me on my “cute but practical shoes”. She then said in her southern drawl “women are always walkin’ around like idiots in these giant ass heels and I’m like ‘girl, you always gotta be ready to run’.” I appreciate that given the context of the conversation it’s a bit disturbing (and I also just indirectly talked about my vagina); but my point is, “wear comfortable shoes” is a lesson taught by many aspects of life. Always be ready and able to do anything and everything asked of you: walk, run, skip, jump, move and just generally enjoy your life without risking death or injury.

And if you can do all of that in four inch platforms, then God bless you.

9. Your insecurities will hold you back. There is an Improv game where a group organizes itself into two lines. The two people at the head of each line face each other, one makes an offer to the other and the other replies with “NOPE”. This exercise is intended to show you how terrible, scene ending, and soul crushing saying no is (OH THE REJECTION!).

Next, to go one step further, you play the game again, only this time instead of just saying no, you justify why you say no. Now you’re not only being rejected, but you’re being told, in clear terms, why you’re being rejected. This exercise is intended to show you how terrible, scene-ending and soul crushing saying no is, and to toughen you up.

Person 1: want to go to the park today to eat a sandwich?

Person 2: no because you’re fat and I don’t want to be seen in public with you.

This sounds terrible and if you’re sensitive to it, it is! When your partner says no and then justifies that no, even if they say “you’re fat” when you’re obviously skinny or “you’re too short” when you’re over 6 feet, you will still feel a pang of sensitivity as you leave the scene because you are a human person with regular human feelings and emotions. But really what this game is showing you that you want to have the freedom to say the first thing that comes to your head, and you don’t want to have to worry about hurting someone else’s feelings. You do this, by making a pact with your partner, that neither of you is going to take anything personally.

If you are super sensitive, you’re going to suffer in every scene and people will become too self-conscious in their offers because they will be too worried about hurting you. So don’t take things too personally. Don’t let your ego hold you back, undermine your partner, and destroy the potential of the scene. In exchange, your partner promises not to take things personally when you never intended them as such anyway. Deal?

10. Great, wonderful and beautiful things don’t last forever. Savor them all.

If you haven’t read “Tina Fey’s Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat” from her book, Bossypants, or if you haven’t even read Bossypants at all, you are half of the human being you could be. Buy it, read it, love it, learn it.

4 thoughts on “The Things that Improv Taught Me

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