(or Improv as Life)
Last winter/spring, I joined a little improv group.
I love all things theatre and want to support the arts however I can, but the idea of doing improvisational performances, well, it really freaked me out.
But my dear friends assured me that they were learning, too. That we would all be learning this new (to us) art and that it would be a safe and fun place. We’d all be in it together.
So I showed up at the first meeting… and never regretted it.
I love performance arts, but I have to have a script.
I like to know what I’m supposed to say, when I’m supposed to say it. I take a script and study it. I like knowing the plot and how it unfolds through the dialogue and actions. I like getting to know the characters. They become my friends, and I like knowing their motivations, their goals and hopes and dreams and how the script brings that to life.
All of these things make me feel safe and secure—I mean, performing on a stage is already a huge risk, so the security that a script provides allows me to know where we are all headed. I have something to pull from when my mind goes blank or I get lost in others’ performances.
Scripts are vital to me.
So the idea of going completely off-script and acting “on the fly”?
I learned so much during my time at improv.
I learned that in order for improv to work right, everyone has to feel safe to put themselves out there. The way we ensure safety is through one simple rule:
You never give someone a “NO.”
Whatever someone contributes to a scene, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to you, regardless of how much you think it doesn’t fit with what you are creating or how “off the plot” it seems, or even if you have no idea what it even IS that the other person has dropped into the scene—you have to “go with it.” You have to work with it. Add to it. Weave it in to the scene you’re creating. And in doing so—you’re giving the person a big “YES” to the idea.
In doing so, you are making it safe for everyone to take a risk.
And we really did take some risks!
I found myself jumping in as characters I thought up the second before I hopped in! Or building on a scene I didn’t even understand! My comfort level became less and less important and the scene and the characters carrying the scene became the most important. And I found myself asking, “How can I contribute?”
Sometimes someone would say something and the moment it flew off his lips, you could tell he regretted it, and I found myself asking, How can I build on this? And then jumping right in to continue what we were creating.
We all felt this way.
And the relief and laughter in the eyes when the scene kept moving forward? Huge.
Someone might be vulnerable with an accent—and we would match it and keep it going.
Someone might be vulnerable with a plot twist—and we would roll right with it, even when we envisioned the scene going a different direction.
Someone might be vulnerable with a character—and we make that character belong.
I learned the biggest thing this required was listening. Really listening.
Because you can’t give someone a “YES” if you’re just thinking about what you’re going to say next.
You can’t give someone a “YES” if the entire time you’re thinking of your own agenda.
And everyone has something to contribute.
It doesn’t matter what sort of criticism or cynicism we carry, everyone has value.
Everyone adds to the story we’re creating.
We read a anecdote about a time when Joan Rivers was in a famous improv troupe.
She was in a scene with a fellow performer. They were riffing a scene where a couple was breaking up and the man says, “But what about the kids?” And Joan says, “We don’t have any kids!”
Apparently the audience ate it up. And Joan soaked up all that laughter… but then the scene fell flat because—
She had given him a big, fat “NO.”
She sacrificed her team for her own agenda.
And I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
Because I’m a script kind of person.
I like knowing what to say. How to respond.
And I began to realize this isn’t something isolated to performances; it’s something I used to get bound up by in everyday life:
I’d be worried I’d say the wrong thing.
Or stick my foot in my mouth.
Or say something stupid to hurt someone’s feelings.
Or focused only on what I needed to communicate, instead of what the other person is saying.
This summer, a friend and I were talking and I made some sort of error in my speech.
I can’t remember the specifics now (probably some sort of spoonerism or tongue entanglement), but whatever is was, she pointed it out and we both started cracking up laughing. And I’m laughing at myself so hard and she’s laughing at me so hard and then she chuckles, “FINALLY! I caught YOU in a mistake! You always catch me in one and I never catch you!” And we both continue laughing.
Now, I make mistakes ALL. THE. TIME. She and I both know this.
But her words really gnawed at me and I wondered, Is that what I DO? Do I point out others’ errors in conversation? The VERY thing I always worry about doing myself?
It was very much a moment of self-awareness.
And even though I realized that my intentions weren’t mean or unkind but really just because I really love speech and really love laughing with people, it still left me with a burning question:
Do I make people feel safe to take risks with me?
Improv taught me so much about being present.
That performing well in any capacity is largely about being in the moment, listening, breathing, trusting and then responding.
I realized that my favorite people to talk with are the people who really listen and then contribute back in meaningful ways, not in self-serving ways, but in grounded, kind, motive-free ways.
I want to be like that.
The biggest hurdle with improv is just how vulnerable you feel. Because when you take away your expectations and allow yourself to be free to jump in and contribute—
You remove your filters.
I’ve heard people use the expression, “I have no filter.” And they usually laugh. And the statement usually follows something unkind.
I think getting rid of filters can be a good thing:
It can make us brave to speak up and against unjust actions.
It can enable us to connect with others in a way that our previous filters blocked.
It can give us confidence and help us reach solutions quicker.
It enables us to bring our full self forward.
And just like in improv, when we put our full self into something, we can create really amazing, really interesting things.
Just like the way presence is vital in improv, presence is also vital when we choose to “have no filter” in our conversations.
We have to make sure we’re thinking on the right things.
That our hearts are in the right place.
Because ears don’t have filters.
And words hurt.
Especially because they are a reflection of the heart.
Our mantra in improv became “Leap and the net will appear.”
Interesting things happen when people feel safe to put their full self forward.
That’s where the magic is.
So I want to be like that:
I want to take the leap.
I want to be the net.
Because I think the world can change when we build off one another, when we work with each other to create something Good.