Saying Yes: How Improv Can Improve Your Life
On paper, improvisational comedy or improv (or ‘prov as it’s known in the biz) sure looks like a bunch of idiots running around and desperately trying to be funny, and in practice this is true. But there’s a whole raft of added benefits that studying improv can bring to your everyday life.
It’s always been a thing we’ve loved to watch, even if we didn’t know we were watching it. Robin Williams, Mike Meyers, Sacha Baron Cohen, SNL alum like Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell etc all regularly practice it, and it’s popularity continues to skyrocket with the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who met while studying improv at the world-famous Second City and ImprovOlympics in Chicago.
On her bestselling memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey wrote that studying improv “appealed to me not only as a way of creating comedy, but as a worldview” and that “improv fosters open-mindedness, creativity, problem solving, and even feminism.”
Anyone who’s practiced improv talks about its certain kind of magic, and often, how this performance technique can add immense value to your everyday life.
The golden rule of improv is saying ‘yes’. The conceit is that you never reject an offer on stage – if someone says “let’s go shoot alligators on the moon” you have to agree, despite the fact it’s a really stupid idea. Or is it? Mike Meyers knows this rule well, as “Agree and add. Take what is, and add to it.”
Nothing halts a scene faster than saying no, and rejecting someone’s idea. Saying ‘yes’ means that the action has forward motion; things have to happen.
Nobody is saying to be that dogmatic in real life – saying yes to literally everything could be very dangerous, or at least the plot to a movie with Jim Carrey. However, keeping yourself open to taking chances, to the possibility of positive additions in your life, to the concept of being more positive than negative – can only lead to amazing adventures and growth.
It’s scary to be that open, and jumping at new, unknown things puts you out of your comfort zone: the exact place where personal growth occurs.
There’s an inherent confidence that comes from getting up on stage and clowning around, but unlike a lot of other forms of performance, improv actually teaches methods for being confident that you’ll use beyond the stage.
Entrepreneur Serge Bodulovic had his progress through the Level 1 program at Improv Theatre Sydney (ITs) at the Giant Dwarf Theatre documented in a video series. Serge has no desire to be a comedian or an actor – he wants to build up his self-esteem, and be more confident in his personal relationships and in his career.
Throughout the videos, we watch a Serge so nervous he literally forgets how to pronounce his own name to witnessing him perform in front of a huge crowd – proof that the eight-week course was a confidence booster.
One of the lynchpins of improv is trust, both in your fellow troupe members and in yourself. On the improv stage, no man is an island. While sometimes it may look like the opposite of this idea, there is no room for showboating or for one person to grab the limelight from everyone else.
Rather, it’s all about listening and working together to create the best scene possible. If someone is up on stage and doing a bad job, that’s the fault of the entire team, as improv teaches you to work on raising your team members up, rather than letting them flail around on their own. This is one of the reasons that Serge felt confident enough to perform on stage – he was able to trust in the people around him.
Josephine Parsons is a current Level 2 student at ITs (and Team Assistant at Junkee Media, just quietly). She says she started improv, “because I had a lot of trouble backing my own ideas and getting over the really persistent voice that tells me I suck. I’m a very creative person but having a creative mind isn’t so helpful when you don’t trust yourself to express it,” she says.
“Improv classes teach you that every idea, in some respect, is valid (unless, of course, it’s hurtful or maliciously intended) because you’re bouncing it off scene partners that will make it better and it eventually just takes on a life of its own.”
“Improv teaches people how to be present, how to play, and how to be an active listener” – Kate Coates
Trust in yourself goes hand-in-hand with confidence, and is something that obviously improves every aspect of your life. Josie has found this has led her to apologise about her ideas less.
“In my first class of Level 1, the teacher, Cale Bain, said that the number one rule is that you can’t say sorry. This is huge for me because my Catholic parents brought me up to be a cripplingly polite human and it’s alarming how much that impacts my day-to-day decision making. The benefits of reigning this in was never something I would have considered helpful,” admits Josie.
One of the unexpected benefits that I’ve found from my time during improv is the ability to enhance my communication. I’ve never thought of myself as particularly ‘bad’ at talking, but during my year of classes, I discovered that I had incredibly shifty eyes, and a terrible habit of letting the other person ask all the questions. I learnt that eye contact is a fantastic way of expressing interest, and listening and picking up cues helps a conversation flow naturally.
Cale Bain was trained at Second City in Toronto, and is one of the teachers and founders of ITs in Sydney. He confirms the importance of communication in his classes:
“Improv really focuses on the wholeness of communication and stresses the idea that listening is way more important than talking. The more you listen, the easier it is to understand where things are going, how you can contribute, how you can make everyone look good, how you can create with your scene partners.”
One of the clear benefits from increased communication skills can definitely be in the workplace, and a lot of improv schools have dedicated workshops and training courses for companies.
I started doing improv classes in the middle of a cold winter, while I was working full time and trying to write a book. I’d get up in the darkness and write at a screen, go to work and stare at my computer and basically do the same thing on the weekend. My only hobby was reading. I needed an activity that got me out of the house and moving around and most of all, got me having fun. Improv turned out to be just the silly, energetic, nonsense activity that I needed.
Kate Coates is an award-winning improviser, comedian and teacher at ITs, who says she started doing improv for a similar reason; “I was halfway through a BA in politics when I couldn’t ignore my festering depression anymore and I decided to get back into the last thing that made me happy: performing. I chose improv because I’d always been drawn to comedy and sometimes believed my friends when they told me I was funny.”
I personally believe there’s no point in living if you’re not enjoying yourself, so I think it’s important to challenge yourself to be really engaged and playful sometimes. The ability to let go and play has been so valuable for my mental health, and improv has become an activity that I look forward to every week.
Kate sums up its impact nicely, when she says, “Improv teaches people how to be present, how to play, and how to be an active listener that places importance on what the other person is saying. Once you start improvising, it’s outrageous to realise how little we grant ourselves permission to play in our everyday lives.”
Patrick Lenton is a writer and digital marketer. He runs Town Crier, a social media and marketing consultancy for authors.