If you’re an actor in a city like Los Angeles and New York, or even Austin, Chicago, or Atlanta, a time will come when you may have to take an improv class. Maybe your agent suggests it or an acting teacher, or the hot new casting director just loves someone who’s done XYZ improv class. Or maybe you’ve gone to enough of your friends’ improv shows and just thought, “Why the hell not?” But where do you begin?
Many actors make a name for themselves by being able to improvise. After all, improvising gives you the opportunity for more takes. It also gives you something to do when a director throws the ball to you. Improv can help in commercial acting and sketch comedy. Plus, improv schools are notorious places to network and help meet people who just might help your career.
To an outsider, improv can seem like people playing charades with forced premises, adults playing pretend, or even dorky or lame. But when you really unpack it all, improv will fundamentally change how you think. It’s centered entirely on collaboration, agreement, and saying, “Yes, and…”
Improv’s the complete opposite of our culture where everyone’s fighting over innocuous things or perceived slights. People are quick to say, “No” and forget someone is a human being not pixels on a screen. People get so focused on their egos that they ignore people around them. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in the relationship-based and incestuous business we call show is to forget that people are people. We all have complex lives and emotions inside us and maybe leading with the same can-do mask of eagerness you are. But when you boil it down improv helps us react more authentically and remember how to be people.
Here are eight things that can help make you seem like less of a noob in your first improv class.
1. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
This should be a given in comedy, but that type-A “good student” energy can pop up whenever you learn something new. You’re so focused on getting it “right” you can forget to just be present. So check your ego and the want to get it “right” at the door. There may, somewhere, exist on a battered old VHS a technically proficient improv scene. But one major part of what makes improv fun(ny) is that it's spur of the moment. People are building the scene as they go along. Making mistakes seem like intentional choices is something you’ll hope to master.
2. Be prepared to change how you think.
If a person asks you for money on the sidewalk or asks for your social security number you’re going to say no. But in an improv scene, you say yes to everything. You learn to think less of “me” and more of “we.” That’s the beauty of improv. It helps us learn to be more agreeable, have more grace for others, be more aware of the world around us, and focus on seeing solutions, not problems. That combined with the unique wit and wisdom you learn from each instructor and coach you meet can fundamentally change how you see the world.
3. It’s all about fun.
This can be easy to forget if you’re taking an improv class to loosen up or under the advice of your management or mentors. But, at its core, improv is about fun. People would not be in tiny black box theaters at 10:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night if they weren’t having fun. Fun is your secret weapon. When you have fun other people have fun and if people want to play with you, in an improv scene, it will bode well for your success in the art form.
4. Make a choice.
I’m going to tell you something that may shock you. There’s no such thing as a wrong choice. Selling all your possessions and moving to Vegas to tend bar under a pseudonym may be a stretch. But think of all the life experience you’ll get and great stories. Meanwhile, not making a choice is a time and energy drain. Knowing what you want to eat at a restaurant should not be approached with the same level of deep contemplation as what you want to do with your life. Your friends won’t tell you this because they care about you. Improv can break you of your indecisiveness. Improvisers cultivate the skills to think on their feet and react on instinct. It’s more reactive than conscious so the less time you spend mulling over ideas the better. Plus, with only a few minutes per scene it’s best you just get in, get your hands dirty, and play. Spending 30 seconds thinking or trying to choose only kills valuable class time.
5. Be present.
We spend most of our lives not present: we’re on screens, we’re multitasking, we’re in the future. But in improv, all of you (the voices in your head, your inner demons, your expertise at putting together charcuterie boards, and the voices of all your family and friends) are all invited to the party. They’re all able to help you and inform the scene. There are rare moments where we get to fully be ourselves. In improv, you’re expected to be present in your body, as your character, and also the part of you that is reacting to the non-verbal conversation you and your scene partner may be having.
6. Fail upward.
No one is instantly good at something. The more you focus on having fun and being yourself the better off you’ll be in your improv journey. The more you do improv, the more you’ll learn about how you think and see the world. Improv audiences are probably the most forgiving because they’re in on the moment. Each improv scene is like a mandala. You make it and then throw it away. So enjoy the fact that, unlike your auditions, content, and performances, there are no stakes. It’s meant to be a fun moment you share with your scene partner(s) and your audience.
7. Be specific.
If you want one secret to make you stand out in your improv class it’s be specific. It’s one thing to say, “We’re at the store.” It’s another to say, “We’re here at the secret Thunderdome underneath the Home Depot on Elm Street.” The more specific you are the more you give your scene partners and audience to work with. After all, improv is all imaginary so the more fuel you give the better. But specifics help cue your scene partner into how your brain works. Improv is as much nonverbal as it is verbal communication so everything you choose to say matters.
8. There are no mistakes.
Save the shame, guilt, and self-effacing for your therapist. Improv is all about just agreeing. So if you make a mistake your scene partner can turn that into a win. Again, it’s completely improvised so why give it any more energy than just saying, “Yes, and.”
These are not hard fast rules in improv. These are a few quick tips to keep you from making simple mistakes or wasting time and energy in your first improv class. Or your fifteenth improv class. But these simple tips can help you get the most out of an experience that can change the way you act, think, speak, and engage. That is, if you let it.
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