Agents, managers, or casting directors have likely told you to take an improv class. As yet another expense for your acting career, it can be hard to see the inherent value. Will that UCB class get me booked? But improv will not just help you ad-lib lines and come up with funnier characters. It can also help improve your life.
Here are a few ways improv makes a difference.
1. Say “yes, and” to life.
In this industry, we hear a lot of “nos.” Hell, in the world there’s a lot of “nos” and “buts” and “not in a million years.” What’s great about improv is it’s an alternate universe where people say yes to things. Everything is a gift. People work together towards a common goal. This helps you start to bring that approach into your everyday life. You start to work with what is in front of you, accept things more readily, and resist less. It helps you start to see solutions and not problems because you can analyze a problem from every direction. You can talk about it ad nauseum to your friends, therapist, and the checkout person at Trader Joe’s, but it isn’t until you take action that you’ve started to resolve it.
2. Be more decisive.
One of my favorite improv teachers, Shulie Cowen told me, “There’s no wrong choice…except not making one.” If you’re confronted with a choice, whether it’s a restaurant for lunch or the future of your acting career, it’s best to take clear decisive action. Getting into a neurotic spiral or second-guessing your choices is wasted energy. In an industry like ours, you have to jump on opportunities. Being able to make clear decisions not only helps you be a boss. It also saves you so much wasted time and energy that can be better spent in supporting those decisions. You can’t know what will happen but you also can’t control it. You can only control how you react.
3. Listen more.
So much of good improv is astute listening. Meanwhile, so many people barely listen. We’re often thinking of what to say next, or worse thinking about something completely different. Improv forces you to really pay attention to your partner. You don’t just take in what they say, but how they said it, what they may have meant by what they said, and what you learned from what they said. This mindful response starts to become instinct. You get more in touch with how you feel about what they say and how to make it funny. The foundation of the scene and the world you create is all built by the first two lines of dialogue. Over time, improv gives you a skill set for listening and more thoughtfully responding. Instead of trying to solve a problem or defend yourself, you just work with what’s right in front of you.
4. Don’t debate, collaborate.
Our society has devolved into an us vs. them binary. It’s easy to mute voices you don’t agree with and distract ourselves from what we don’t want to hear. It’s easy to demonize people, but how do we eventually get on the same page? Imagine if we could all just find a way to work towards a common goal. While you’re in an improv scene you enter a magical world where people from different backgrounds and vastly different points of view work together. There are no wrong answers and there’s humor and levity in petty problems and random situations. As you learn to be a better improviser you become better at conflict resolution and find a way to judge less. The test of a great improviser is, can you make your scene partner look good? When you go out into the world with that can-do let’s make this work spirit you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.
5. Specificity is the spice of life.
Who’s a funnier person to walk into a doctor’s office—a nurse or Nurse ButterFace-McWilliams? As you study improv, you’ll be encouraged to be more specific. After all, you must paint a picture for your scene partner and the audience. This specificity helps you in your everyday life too. Not only does it make for funnier dialogue, it also forces you to be more specific about your thoughts, feelings, and opinions. That helps you communicate more clearly and effectively.
6. Deal with your sh-tuff.
In my time in improv, I’ve seen how the struggles my friends had in class or on stage reflected the troubles they had in life. Do you have trouble asking for what you need? Do you have trouble expressing emotion? Are you unclear of what you want? Are you a people pleaser? A die-hard disagreer? The only tool you have in improv is you. And what comes out in scenes can sometimes be something you may not realize about yourself. As you resolve these issues in three minute scenes you gain tools to help you resolve them in your life.
7. Learn who you are.
Improv ironically helps you find out who you are by playing other people. The patterns in your scenes show you how you approach things. There’s a popular game where the teacher will yell “new choice” in the middle of the scene. You instantly have to switch your line of dialogue or action. This helps you get past basic choices to something that is uniquely you. Oftentimes, our inner critic, the voice of our parents, and even our inner saboteur is driving, or crashing, the bus. It takes some work to find our authentic voice. In improv, you cultivate that voice by trying different people and situations to ensure you’re the one in the driver’s seat of this bus.
Improv is a must for actors, but it can do more than give you fodder for your résumé. Sure, it’s a bunch of grown-ups playing pretend. But, if you let it, improv can help you improve your communication skills, relationships, and your life. If you work with what you have and make the most of it you can achieve great things. Or you can keep saying no, and but, and never and wonder why things haven’t changed.
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and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.