My troubled history with improv
For a short period in my life, I thought I wanted to be an actor. I even studied drama in university. Though it soon became apparent that I wasn't destined for Hollywood or Broadway, I still - for the most part - loved my acting classes. I say for the most part because there was one aspect of acting classes that I loathed: improv.
I deal with a lot of anxiety - social anxiety in particular - and the greatest cause of my anxiety is uncertainty. When I was given the opportunity to memorize lines, rehearse blocking, and disguise myself with costumes and makeup, I was comfortable. When I was expected to come up with a character, invent a story, and make an audience - even if it was just my classmates - laugh, I was very, very uncomfortable.
Which is why, a few months ago, I was a little surprised to find myself sitting in a small room tucked behind a local theatre, waiting nervously for my first actual improv class to start. I have been pretty persistent in my quest to overcome social anxiety, and despite avoiding it for a decade, I knew that improv would be the best way for me to practice giving up control in a safe environment. The idea of returning to that vulnerable place was terrifying and I expected the class to be uncomfortable and to stretch my limits. What I didn't expect was for it to be so much fun. Or that it would be an incredibly experiential way to practice everything I've been preaching about creativity for the last four years.
I realized that somehow I had gotten entirely the wrong message about improv. Because it turns out that the point of it isn’t to be funny, or to impress people. The audience doesn’t want to see someone show off how clever they are. They want to see someone who authentically engages with an idea, and then fails hilariously.
After that 4-week class, I also recently took a 3 hour Improv for Anxiety workshop. The whole time the instructor was explaining the connections between anxiety therapies and improv I was internally vigorously nodding my head. It made so much sense. Some of my favourite moments in both classes were when we were taught us to look at failure as something exciting and sought after, rather than something to be avoided. I remember exercises where we were encouraged to clap and cheer when someone made a mistake. This felt revolutionary to me. Imagine what would happen if we took that advice into our regular lives?
What the pros have to say
Since I am now apparently smitten by this art form, and since my two instructors - Jolene Ballendine and Chris Dinger - were so brilliant at creating safe, inviting environments and getting us students to take giant risks, I decided to ask them about what improv has to teach us about creativity and life in general. I was delighted by what they had to say.
Why do you teach improv? What do you hope that your students get from it?
Joleen: I teach improv because I believe in the principles that it promotes. Yes, we are all familiar with the classic - be positive, supportive, say yes - but I love when I watch people surprise themselves when they say or do something they weren't expecting. When they start looking at the world through a different lens and they give in to the silliness of it all. I think that as a society we all feel the pressure to know what we are doing, but how many people actually do? It’s okay to not have all the answers all the time.
Chris: Increasingly, my center of focus in improvisational instruction has been through my "Improv for Anxiety" classes. However, the hope I have for my “Anxiety” students really does overlap with the students in our regular improv program here at SAK Comedy Lab in Orlando. Rather than training people up to be better performers, or in the case of my Improv for Anxiety students, better people, my goal is to show students that their intrinsic creativity and value is great enough that it doesn’t need to be improved as much as it needs to be unblocked.
When such a wealth of value is barricaded behind closed (or partially closed) doors, the answer is not to figure out a way to add more value (i.e. be funnier, more creative, more interesting, etc). The answer is to open the doors wider so the existing value one possesses can flow more freely.
That said, my hope is that students learn from improv how to relax into being more authentic and less fearful versions of themselves.
What do your students find is the most difficult aspect of improvising and how do you help them overcome it?
Joleen: Improv is really hard. You are wearing so many hats, actor, writer, director, editor - hell sometimes you are even the set and props. That is a lot to balance at one time and from time to time one of those balls will drop and for many people that is terrifying. Failure. The faster someone can get used to failure, the better. Failing and improv go hand in hand.
The audience doesn't want to see a perfect scene - that's called a play, or sketch comedy. The audience wants to see you mess up. After all, mistakes in improv are when the real magic takes place. The only way to get over the fear of failing is to do it over and over again.
Chris: Most people walk into their first improv class feeling deep down that they don’t have enough to offer and that others are out to judge them. Exercises that intentionally provoke failure and its resulting celebration begin to reinforce that failure can be redefined in a more liberating way and less limiting way, and that others within the group are eager to support rather than to judge them. However, probably the most difficult task is helping students overcome the judgement that comes from within themselves. That’s more of a process of continually reminding students to shift their inner focus away from the internal neuroses and onto what is actually helpful in any given moment.
What does improv have to teach us about being in the present moment?
Joleen: People are very concerned about what other people think about them. What we rarely consider is that the very person that you are worried about judging you is likely just as concerned about you judging them. The more we listen to each other, look at one another, get out of our own heads and stop analyzing all of our choices the more that we can connect to those around us. There is a great saying in improv: "The answer is in your scene partner's eyes." I think this idea should be applied more regularly in our day to day life.
It can get very lonely living in your own head. Lighten the load by inviting others in.
Chris: Through improvisation we can observe that many things of value we can gain from an improv performance (i.e. laughter from the audience, a coherent and compelling scene or story, or a sense of delight by the players themselves) almost always arise as a byproduct of the improvisers being in the moment. Prior planning or agenda pushing almost never take us as far as a deliberate focus on what is happening in any given moment.
Once an improviser or student thereof experiences that the degree to which they are internally focused on their mental chatter is the degree to which their scene suffers, they can begin to let that neuroses go and just take a chance on what is happening in the moment between the shared space of the people on stage. Inevitably, they will find that the more present they are (along with the more technical experience they have), the more positive outcomes they will have. This extrapolates to our social and worldly interactions beautifully.
Can you describe one of your favourite improv exercises or games?
Joleen: I am a huge fan of the exercise Dolphin Training. It is a lot like the childhood game Hot and Cold where you think of something you would like your partner to do and your partner needs to try to guess what it is you want them to do. You say warmer as they get closer and cooler when they are getting further away from the desired task.
The only difference in Dolphin Training is that the person guessing only ever gets the warmer signal. In other words, you remove the negative reinforcement and only communicate through positive reinforcement (which is how dolphins are trained, only through positivity). This might seem easy enough but after 3 or 4 minutes of guessing and not getting it right people tent to get very frustrated. Without fail, every time I play this game there are people who struggle to have fun. It tells me a lot about our need to get it “right”.
The game promotes positivity yet it isn’t until the second round when I challenge the guesser to take risks and focus more on delighting their partner and themselves that people actually start making big choices and getting out of their heads. Dolphin Training highlights all of the things improv teaches: discovery, play, patiences, happy failure.
Chris: A game we play on stage as well as in class is “One Voice Expert”. Two people play one character by speaking at the same time and forming their words and sentences together simultaneously as an interviewer questions them on a given field of expertise. It’s delightful to watch and extraordinarily fun to play. Players must learn to strike a balance between leading, following and flowing with a spoken idea. Those that can learn to strike that balance are rewarded by the absurd and unexpected places their joint words will take them.
It teaches us that relinquishing control to some degree is not only healthy, but really exciting.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your experiences with improv and creativity?
Joleen: I can’t remember who said this but it has always stuck with me: improv is like walking backward on a path, you don’t know where you are going, but you have all the stuff you just passed to help you get there. Making mistakes is the only way to learn and grow. I try to live my life that way.
Who knows what is ahead, and who cares! It’s a hell of a lot more fun to discover then to play it safe.
Chris: The only thing I’d add is what I tell all my students…
“Dare to be boring and unoriginal”. You will be surprised how inspiring and creative your “boring” choices are.
If you’re in Edmonton and you’ve been thinking about trying improv, Joleen teaches at Rapidfire and I couldn’t recommend her and her colleagues more (and no, I wasn’t paid to say that). I was lucky enough to take Chris’s workshop as part of Edmonton’s Improvaganza festival - keep an eye out for next year’s workshops. And, if you're in Orlando, check out the classes at Sak!
If you’d like to learn more but aren’t quite ready to step out on stage (I get it, it took me ten years to be ready) there are two books that you can learn a lot from while sitting on the sidelines. The first, Improvisation for the Spirit by Katie Goodman is a lovely exploration of how the principles of improv can be applied in creativity and everyday life. The second, Impro by Keith Johnstone, is a more technical look at specific techniques and ideas but is fascinating if you have any interest in the theatre or improvisation.
Finally, I’m contemplating how I can use some of these concepts from improv to teach in person and online art classes. So stay tuned!