I’m Not Making This Up: Lessons From Learning Improv

A quicker wit, a mimed dinner, and a few carpet burns weren’t the only things I took from my comedy education. After a year of studying improv at the Second City, I have found that some of the same principles of a successful two-person comedy scene also apply to human relationships. Such as:

1. Say Something: In an improv scene, the most critical moments are those first few seconds. One of you (preferably you) has to have the courage to say something to start the action. The audience wants to get to know you and engage in your scene (nobody pays to see clueless people standing around). This first line can be funny or not, but it needs to be informative. Who are you? What is your relationship to the other person on stage? Without this introduction, the “conversation” with your audience cannot begin.

In the real world, this same principle applies when introducing yourself. Silently wondering, “What am I going to say?” doesn’t get you points when in front of a prospective boss, a new teammate, or the cutie from across the hall. It’s not that you need an introduction in your pocket 24/7. Rather, the magic is in having the confidence to begin a conversation, taking the pressure off of the other person to make the first move. A good conversation starter allows for a variety of answers (like a good first improv line). They’ll be grateful for your initiative, and you’ll look like a go-getter. Win-Win.

2. Listen: If your scene partner initiated the scene, your obligation now is to listen attentively and go along with what he or she started. Throughout the scene, it is vital to the cohesiveness of the action on stage that you keep your ears open. You better believe that the audience is paying attention (again, they paid to be there) and will notice if things don’t make sense. For example, your scene partner’s scream when you dump tackle them because you heard “rugby” when he or she established a “nursery”.

Listening is important off the stage as well. When was the last time your fast food or coffee order was wrong? Or how about your significant other forgetting that one thing they made the trip to the store for? We all appreciate being listened to, and feel at ease with a person who is interested in what we are saying. Listening for directions, information, or hints can impress and win over the people in our lives. That prospective boss will marvel at your ability to take direction. Your teammate will be thrilled that your deadline is met. And the cutie across the hall? Impressed that you’ve picked up his/her favorite author.

3. Show, Don’t Tell: In improv we are always told to show what we are doing, feeling, and what our character wants. For example, simply saying that you’re angry is dull, unconvincing, and doesn’t connect your audience to the action on the stage. But throwing a pan at your scene partner, yelling, ranting, and raving? Ah, yes, that gets their attention, and is much more entertaining to watch. Not only are you using your body to convey an emotion (as performers should), but you are giving your scene partner more to work with as they react to your emotional state.

Life also asks us to prove our words true. “You never show me that you love me,” cries the protagonist of a romantic comedy, after her boyfriend fails to demonstrate his professed devotion.  As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. People are more tuned in to nonverbal cues than anything a person says. Nobody believes someone is “great” when a sagged posture shows otherwise. As on stage, your “showing” proves or disproves everything you say. That boss will definitely believe you are committed to your job when you stay late to finish a project. Spending all day on Facebook, however, will discredit your enthusiasm to “grow with the firm.”

4. Attack for Each Other: This principal, which I credit to one of my wildly talented teachers, focuses on the scene partner relationship. It states that you are not to leave your fellow improviser hanging. Whatever your partner adds in and however he/she reacts to your bits, you have to acknowledge these and move the scene forward. You are there to help each other, building the scene and the relationship between the characters together. You watch out for each other, and give each other the chance to contribute and shine.

The same holds true in personal relationships. Who likes a ball hog, or someone who lords their intelligence over others? Not only is it annoying, but it makes the rest of us feel inferior. The dynamics don’t change when working in groups. Groups work best when each member pitches in his/her two cents, distributes responsibilities evenly, and takes advantage of everyone’s talents. The results of their work are typically better, and the group’s enthusiasm for their end product is higher due to all sharing ownership of the outcome.

5. Be Ready to Throw Preconceptions out the Window: Almost every improviser learns the hard way that a scene will never go as expected. A preplanned plot line will always get thrown off by something your partner says or does. And even when you try to steer your scene back to your planned route, it has already established its course. You have no choice but to go along if it is going to make any sense to your audience. Entering a scene “out of your head” (not thinking too hard about where the scene is going to go) is the best philosophy. Flexibility allows for a much broader spectrum of situations and more opportunity for hilarity on stage.

Similarly, no one gets exactly what he/she thought life would bring. Being able to roll with the punches is not only an admirable quality, but a necessary one. People lose jobs, get out of relationships, win the lottery, and pay for things that weren’t what they expected. You can’t hold on to a life plan like everything depends on it. The majority of the time, plans get tweaked along the way. I know that cutie from across the hall moved away before you could make your move, but you know what? Someone else is moving in. I promise.

I’ve learned more about people, human relationships, and taking life as it comes from going to comedy school than I have in years of just living.

Ready to apply your real life to improv? Take a class or two (heck, finish a program)! Taught by veteran improvisers, classes at the following establishments are offered nights and weekends to fit your busy schedule. All of these Chicago schools have programs designed to lead you through their method of improv. What style will you make your own?

Annoyance Theatre

Comedy Studies at Columbia College


iO Theatre

The Second City

Natalie (The Runt Staff) was reintroduced to improv comedy during an accounting class, and has been deciding who she is, where she is, and what she wants on the spot ever since. She is a graduate of Second City’s Improv program, and is working on getting through the Annoyance Theatre’s Improv track. She is a student of poetics and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, dabbling every once in a while in music theory. She can be contacted at theruntchicago@gmail.com.

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