I've been doing improv for a few years now. And by doing, I mean taking classes and doing performances at Blind Tiger Comedy. The photo above is from one such class. As you can see, my classmates and I are beyond hilarious.
I initially signed up for classes to hone my improvisational skills for TV work. I've also found it extremely helpful when I go to auditions. But I've come to realize that improv has valuable lessons to impart not just for on-camera work, but also for life in general. It's helped me in meetings, pitches, and in any social situation where I don't know many people.
Here's why I think anyone can benefit from enrolling in a class or two.
1. Be Average. One of my early teachers, Veena Sood, stressed the importance of being average, which sounds pretty counter-intuitive for most of us. What she means is stop trying so hard. When you are constantly focused on being your best, questioning whether everything you do is good enough, you spend a lot of time in your head. Whether you’re acting, giving a presentation or making small talk at a dinner party, stop trying to be smart, funny, charming, etc. Take the pressure off yourself and just be average.
2. Think on your Feet. A lot of improv involves acting out scenarios with no time to prepare. Be an astronaut, pretend you’re looking for buried treasure, perform brain surgery. You don’t get 10 minutes to figure out what to say or do. You have to make it up as you go along. It’s great practice for thinking on your feet and again, not over-thinking things.
3. Don’t block. In improv, you are encouraged to say YES. When your scene partner says, “Let’s go into the woods and pick flowers,” you don’t say, “No, I don’t want to.” By saying no, you’re blocking the idea and forcing your scene partner to come up with yet another suggestion. By saying yes, you keep things flowing and moving forward. In life there are plenty of valid places for a “no,” but saying yes opens you up to new experiences and can take you in unforeseen directions.
4. Analyze your Status. Playing with "status" is an improv trick, which helps you build and define the character you're playing. Low status people tend to fidget, giggle, and avoid eye contact. They also try to contract their bodies, taking up as little space as possible. Think Woody Allen. High status people take up more space, they hold eye contact and move about less. Think Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife.
Playing improv games involving status is a valuable acting exercise as body language goes a long way in defining a character. In real life, we are often low status in some situations and high in others. There’s no one right way to be. But I came to realize that the aw-shucks low status attitude while often charming, can also be grating. The composure of high status can seem confident and controlled, but also cold. The exercises made me evaluate my own body language and low/high status proclivities.
5. Be Silly. When you’re making stuff up on the fly, lots of silliness comes out. Improv is “disposable theatre” so it will not live on to haunt you. (Though I have come home from many a performance and thought, "why did I say X and not Y!" But in a class-type setting, no one cares if you say something stupid. (And trust me, you likely will.) It's so fun, so freeing to just let loose, and allow your creativity and spontaneity to percolate. You get to play again, something we adults often don’t have a chance to do.
Considering taking a class? Do it! You're guaranteed to learn some new skills that will help you in work and in play.