5 Life Lessons from Improv Class

Reprinted by permission from Caitlin Mendersee.

I decided to take a class. My divorce support group and all the “starting over” books I read said that hobbies would restore my sanity and help me meet new people, friends that weren’t ours. I suddenly remembered that I had wanted to incorporate improvisational acting (“improv”) into my life (think Who’s Line Is It Anyway?). This was one of those ideas simmering on the back burner so many years that the bottom had begun to crust and sear itself into the pan. I took a leap and stirred up the pot.

The first Monday night I was nervous and excited and mostly really happy to be around other adults (as a work-from- home Mom, this is a big deal). Our instructor, Patrick, is an improv guru extraordinaire with almost thirty years of experience performing and teaching improv all over the world. I assumed he would impart some acting wisdom, help us to conjure up comedic one-liners, teach us about scenes and blocking. I had no idea how deep the lessons would be and how far they would branch out into my life.

Lesson #1: Celebrate mistakes

One of the first games we played the first week was called “Zip, Zap, Zop.” We all stood in a circle facing inward and passed the energy around the circle. The first person said, “zip” while looking and pointing at another person in the group, who then did the same with “zap,” and the third indicated “zop.” (The fourth person then begins the cycle again with “zip”).

Within a few turns I said “zop” instead of “zap.” Moments later a classmate was struck with zip and stared straight ahead with wide eyes, suddenly and inexplicably mute. Pat paused the game and said with a grin, “Ok, here is what we do when someone, inevitably, messes up: we celebrate! As a group we join our arms around the shoulders of the people adjacent to us, and we move into the middle together and exuberantly shout ‘AH-OOO- GAH!’” Belly laughs abounded as we partook in this community celebration of inexorable mistakes.

It was a beautiful reminder to take life a little less seriously. Over the next weeks this small and silly practice in class injected patience and lightheartedness into my treatment of mistakes from myself, and very importantly, my sweet three-year- old.

Lesson #2: Live without self-censure

Pat often repeats what he said the first class: “Leave the judge, the critic, and the editor outside the improv classroom.”

The judge tells us that what we just said or did is not “funny enough or good enough” She needs to stay out of the improv room. The critic takes on others, telling them (or imagining telling them), “That was so wrong, what were you thinking?” He doesn't belong in our improv class. The editor keeps me from saying things before they even travel the short distance from brain to mouth, thinking they aren't "perfect". He is responsible for most instances of "going blank", and doesn’t help improvisors, so he needs to stay outside, too - but can sometimes be useful in other areas of life. 

It is important in the rest of life to go back and edit, use reason and responsibility, consider the impact of our locution and deeds. We must also cultivate spaces for uninhibited creativity and spontaneity.

Lesson #3: Trust my teammates

My romantic partnership of six years recently slowly, painfully crumbled to dust in my hands. At first I had to rebuild my self; developing independence and personal strength was crucial. What with juggling a freelance writing career, my daughter, dating, friendships, exercise and I don’t know—eating—my life is busy. I am finding that when I try to go it completely alone, I easily spiral into a helpless heap of anxiety.

I came into this class envisioning improv scenes as a canvas for funny all-stars to strut their comedic genius. I quickly learned improv scenes are an act of sublime symbiosis: one teammate picking up where the other left off and only together creating a world.

Learning to trust, to really lean in and depend on other people, has been an arduous but truly magnificent experience. I don’t have to have it all together all the time; my team can step in for me where I leave off. And that is a beautiful thing.

Lesson #4: Commit to my choices

Week four we finally started to act. Patrick led a Jill Bernard character creation exercise, giving us four body areas to focus on: head, chest, hips, and feet. He said to go with whatever our bodies wanted to do when he gave the instructions: “Hips. Positive. Go.” Each person had a unique interpretation of happy hips, some wobbling, some sensual, some bouncy: all intriguing. Pat emphasized that our job was to make very specific choices about who this person was. Who were we channeling? What do they sound like? What phrase do they repeat? Most importantly, Pat said, make a decision and commit to it.

In the improv class sans editor, judge, and critic my choices are momentary judgment calls without forethought. In life my choices ought to be tempered by wisdom and cultivated values. I am learning, however, that so long as I listen to my heart, incorporate wisdom, and draw near to beautiful souls who will hold me accountable to a life aligned with my values, I can jump! I can leap and make choices and at almost thirty years old I am finally learning to commit to my choices. See it through, and let it be what it becomes.

Lesson #5: Let things emerge naturally

I know I am funniest when I am completely oblivious. I think there are people who can manufacture a hilarious moment. These geniuses of hilarity and composers of comedy are enigmas to me. I cannot force funny. I also cannot force life (or people in my life) to act the way I want. Improvised acting reminds me to let things develop as they will.

In the game “Hitchhiker” three people are on a road trip and pick up a hitchhiker who is portraying a specific characteristic (physical, emotional, verbal or occupational). Everyone else in the car must then “catch” the characteristic. One guy entered the car and immediately became extremely paranoid. His demeanor alone was not that funny, but he committed to his choice. Within seconds the three others knew what he was doing and watching four people on a road trip going from neutral to paranoid in three seconds was hilarious. It could have not been so, but it just was. It emerged naturally.

Tonight I will return for improv class number six and it feels a little bittersweet (it's almost over.). Life is a series of improvised scenes. Some work better than others. I’m incredibly grateful for the reminder to laugh at anomalies, create spaces without censure, trust my life teammates, commit to my choices, and then let the chips fall where they may.

The link to Caity's blog is temporarily down. We will re-link when she does.

What I learned in My First Improv Class at CSz

From Eric Earle:

  • Mistakes are good. Mistakes are an offer to you and to the world. We love mistakes.
  • People are always making you offers -- and you have to listen to them. Listen closer.
  • Don't plan. Act.
  • Break the rules. Or at least, bend them. 
  • Don't take life too seriously. It's a game. Relax. Have fun. 
  • Don't live your life always trying to avoid mistakes. That's silly. Embrace them. Use them. 
  • Pay more attention to life.

Improv woke me up. I'm alert. I'm focused. I'm alive. 

Life is happening all around me. And I have to be there for it. Creatively. 
But most of all improv is just fun. Life is fun. And I think sometimes we forget that. Improv reminds you.

Improv gives you presence because it puts you in the present moment. It teaches you that you have to focus and listen harder than you ever have... yet softly, with a sense of fun.
After improv I went shopping. 
There were these huge jars of fruit. (Normally there are smaller ones out there.)
"I don't know if I can eat this whole thing," I said, picking up the big jar and showing it to the worker. (I normally would have just been quiet and left.)
He laughed.
"Oh I can bring you one. The cooler is off ... let me run to the back and get it," he said. 
Earlier in my shopping, I had been thinking about an Odwalla juice, but I had forgotten.
Then I walked by and saw this girl getting one. 
"Oh! You reminded me I was going to get one of those!"
Then she asked me a question and we started chatting. Improvising.
I've started conversations in the past, countless times. But this felt more natural. I wasn't trying to start a conversation, I just did
This one I didn't think about. I just did. It's like I was living in real time and just flowing. Shopping was improv. 
Life is improv.

Eric Earle started our CSz 101 on April 7. His blog is here.