The Joys of Improv

Being a theater buff, I am surprised at how late I am to discover improvisational theater/comedy, or simply improv. This is definitely a case of better late than never, and long story short, after taking the teaser class given by Third World Improv, I found myself wanting more, and signed up for the eight-session Level 1 that was offered soon after.

 

The only thing you should bring to and use in improv is your personal truth. There is no need to invent because all the material one needs is already in you.

I knew I was going to have fun and learn new things, and I knew I had a really good teacher (Third World Improv co-founder Gabe Mercado, who is a well-known theater actor and comedian as well, handled our group, so I knew I was in good hands). But I still wasn’t prepared for just how much learning and enjoyment awaited me.

 

I didn’t even read up on it, as it was. It was a combination of thinking I knew enough (I used to watch Whose Line Is It Anyway enough) and wanting to just be open to the experience and discover things as the classes progressed. I had no agenda except to see what improv was about, what it will open up for me, and a curiosity about how I will do as an improviser.

 

And that’s my first lesson: Going into something with no expectations can open you up to delightful surprises minus any pressure. What a pleasant way to discover something that I now truly appreciate and want to get deeper into.

 

Second lesson: It’s all about play. I am playful by nature, and this playfulness did serve me well in this activity. Improv exercises are basically games, and I had fun participating in these, and letting out the child in me. Our classes evoked memories of a carefree childhood, coupled with a fun sense of competition that went with playing games.

 

Third lesson: It’s okay to make mistakes. Now this one wasn’t that easy or didn’t come as naturally. Being a writer and editor by profession totally got in the way for me in the beginning because my natural instinct is to correct mistakes and to edit myself before speaking. I found myself freezing, not being able to say anything or join in as freely and quickly as needed or wanted. I eventually learned to loosen up more and realized that not only is it okay to make mistakes, but these actually make the scenes more real and funny.

 

Mistakes will happen and these are merely opportunities to learn and avoid doing or saying the same things that didn’t work next time around.

 

Fourth lesson: There’s no need to prepare, only to listen. You learn the futility of preparing given that you never know what the other person/s will say next, which is what you are supposed to respond to and build upon. In fact, preparation in improv kills both the spontaneity and the fun, so you should just go with the flow.

 

Fifth lesson: Learn to use hard focus and soft focus. I discovered how placing your hard or direct focus on one thing, in this case performing a certain task or action (for example, washing the dishes) and placing your soft focus on the conversation you’re having with your scene partner creates the magic of a more authentic dialogue and story that flows.

 

Sixth lesson: Be in the moment. This Zen way of being is practically a way of life for improvising. There is no other way to be an effective improviser except by giving your full attention and applying all of your senses to what’s going on. The moment you tune out and disengage from what’s happening and what’s being said, you are no longer an active participant in the scene and won’t be able to contribute to it effectively.

Mistakes will happen and these are merely opportunities to learn and avoid doing or saying the same things that didn’t work next time around.

Seventh lesson: It’s not about being funny. Humor is natural, and you bring your innate sense of humor into the scenes at hand. The fact that improv usually turns out humorous and comedic is built into the form, and striving consciously to make it so, ironically enough, is what will make it fall flat. The surprise element and spontaneity involved are enough to make the scenes funny, so improvisers need not put extra effort into trying to make people laugh.

 

Eighth lesson: Truth will set you free. The only thing you should bring to and use in improv is your personal truth. There is no need to invent because all the material one needs is already in you. And your truth along with all the other participants’ truths are what will create scenes of honesty and beauty.

 

Ninth lesson: Practice “Yes, and” which is improvisational comedy’s rule of thumb. This concept means accepting what the other person is stating or offering (“yes”) then expanding or building on it (“and”), as opposed to negating or killing it off. It’s all about accepting contributions and being receptive to the ideas of others.

 

Tenth lesson: It’s a group performance and you shine brightest when you don’t strive to steal the scene or be the star. It’s striking the balance of giving your all without trying to outshine anybody.

 

The eight sessions culminated in a showcase, where our class — well-bonded by then, another unexpected gift of improv — experienced making up a very entertaining 20-minute segment from seemingly thin air, just as the other six graduating classes from Levels 1 to 5 did in turn.

 

So I gathered these 10 lessons from taking Third World Improv’s Level 1. The group offers four more levels, and I can only imagine how taking these on will help me improve my improv game, as well as benefit my work and relationships further.