You loosen up. Improv training begins with the idea of playfulness. It's often said that the best improvisers are children. As kids, we could play Cops and Robbers for hours, stay in character, believe in the world, have fun, and play. It's that sense of wonder and possibility that we must return to for successful improvisation.
Improv instills fearlessness. In improvisation, one learns to get up onstage and perform for an audience with no planned setting, character, or dialogue. Successful improvisation instills absolute fearlessness in the actor.
There is a term in improvisation called "Yes, and." It means that when your partner says something, you accept it as reality and build on it. Two players start a scene:
Player A: That gray kitten you are holding is so cute, Mom.
Player B: I'm going to adopt it, sweetheart -- it's a present for your 16th birthday!
Player B accepted the reality, agreed with it, and kept the scene moving. The principle of "Yes, and" is, in my opinion, the primary reason that improvisers are highly successful at executing group work in so many different art forms. They know how to brainstorm with others, how to embrace an idea, and how to build on it. Allow me to dispel some common myths about improvisation.
It's all about being funny. Not true at all. Most new improv students are surprised at how little focus there is on comedy. Trying to be funny is death in improv. It's about playfulness and truth.
Improv is hacky. There is a lot of bad improv out there. But before you decide it's not for you, please make sure you see a great improv show done by masters of the art form. It would be unfair to judge stand-up comedy based on an open-mic night of first-timers rather than on the work of Jerry Seinfeld or George Carlin.
The improv world is a cult. This one may be true. But it's a fun cult, and cheaper than Scientology.
Marc Warzecha is the associate artistic director at The Second City -- Hollywood. He is the author of "Oprah's Last Show: A Musical," now playing at Chicago's Annoyance Theater. He is also a producer of "Improv Legends," a series of documentary shorts exploring the world of improvisation, which will launch in the spring at www.youtube.com/improvlegends.