Inspired by Shonda Rhimes’s book Year of Yes, I decided to do something radical to celebrate my birthday this year: I signed up to learn improv at DC IMPROV in downtown Washington. Yes, theater — because it isn’t how I typically put myself out there.
I was intrigued to try improv after reading Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration, Lessons from The Second City. Authors Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton, executives at The Second City comedy theater in Chicago, describe how they have used improv principles to tap into employees’ creativity and collaborative spirit — and helped businesses create happier, more productive cultures as a result.
To understand what all the buzz was about, I joined more than a dozen other improv novices in a six-week intro course. When it concluded, we all received certificates of laughter from our seasoned improv instructor. No joke. Here’s mine.
Now that I’ve passed Improv 101, I’m sharing 12 things I’ve learned that I’ll carry beyond the stage.
- Participate — and speak up. Acting and speaking are vital in improv. From the very beginning, our teacher made it clear that all of us were going to participate in every activity, and all of our contributions mattered equally. Failure wasn’t possible — as long as we participated.
- Be patient. The ideas you need will ebb and flow. And… pauses create drama and impact in a scene.
- Trade your worry for trust. This can take some time, but trust is an essential part of improv. This means trusting yourself to conjure up a thought or action that meets the situation and trusting your scene partners to work with you to execute a well-played scene. Accept that you won’t always know exactly what’s going to come out of your mouth or how you will gesticulate on stage at any given moment. But remember that the most effective, unforgettable scenes are born when you quit worrying about what you’re going to say or do — and just act like you. Words to live by every day.
- Be fully present in the moment. We hear this a lot these days when it comes to achieving total wellness. But it’s true in improv, too. In fact, the only way to be successful in improv is to be 100 percent present in the scene. This level of focus allows you to pick up subtle and not-so-subtle cues about topic, tone of voice, emotion, body movement, etc. A common refrain from improv novices: “I’m learning how to get out of my head and into the moment.”
- Express a range of emotions. With a spare stage and little direction, you rely on many shades of expression to convey exactly what you’re feeling and thinking. In an exercise, we had to demonstrate classic emotions: anger, happiness, sadness, etc. on a 1-10 graduated scale. I was surprised to discover how narrow my range has been and am motivated to explore new variations.
- Navigate the balance between awareness of self and awareness of others. Improv requires you to pay attention and listen to what’s coming to you from your scene partners, yet you also have to be in touch with and in control of your own emotions and thoughts. This is the heart of executing a strong scene — and demonstrating emotional intelligence in everyday life.
- Move when you’re in a “gray-out.” Translation: When you can’t think of what to say or do next, just move yourself around. Often, movement sparks an idea. We learned this cool exercise, Crazy Eights, designed to loosen up our bodies. It works like this: Quickly shake one hand in the air eight times, do the same with the other hand, then shake one foot, then shake the other foot. Repeat shaking your hands and feet seven times, then six times, then five times… until you count down to one.
- Summon the courage to be vulnerable. Improv is a safe space to be silly, and try new things without feeling judged. Not only did I gain newfound freedom but I also found myself and my classmates more entertaining and more compassionate when expressing vulnerability. In one of our warm-up activities, we stood in a circle, took turns jumping into the center, a.k.a. the hotspot, and sang the first song that popped into our heads. The goal wasn’t to train to become the final American Idol — one of our improv buddies was supposed to dart in and tap the one in the middle and start singing. Sure enough, we didn’t let our new friends drown in song. Many of us picked up on the words in our friends’ songs to belt out a new tune… which brings me to the next point.
- Build on the ideas of others. Yes, And is a crutch in improv — for good reason. Your job is validating what the person before you said and then going a step or two further. In this way, all partners are building a scene — together. It creates a very positive, yet playful experience for all involved. We did this in a myriad of ways: creating a story one word at a time, taking on the personalities and mannerisms of our fellow passengers in a pretend taxicab, introducing our classmates to a new character that our partner then had to embody, among other exercises.
- Understand that the whole truly is greater than the sum of the parts. Improv is about the ensemble and each individual has an important role to play in a scene. As my teacher said, by yourself, you’re a brick; together, you’re a cathedral.
- Practice thinking outside the box wherever you are. Outside-the-box thinking is much sought after in the age of flux. We got a chance to think this way in every class. In one instance, our teacher paired us off and directed one partner to point to objects in the room; the other was tasked with calling these objects anything other than what we know them as in everyday life. In this make-believe world, a phone could be a horseshoe. The idea was to be creative in our naming and defy standard convention.
- Give and receive helpful feedback often. Feedback and reflection were important aspects of the beginning improv class and structured our time together. We applauded each other after individual classmates’ successes and after every activity we completed as a group. When we stumbled in an activity, our teacher asked us to try again until we got the hang of it. At the end of every class, each of us shared one thing we were grateful for and one thing we learned during our two hours together. On Graduation Day, we individually summarized what we would take away from the class. I learned how to better express emotion and spontaneity. One person noted how his work presentations were flowing much better, and attributed this to the skills he was sharpening in class. The overall experience underscored how constructive feedback and thoughtful reflection can work together for personal growth.
In essence, improv hones and stretches the skills we declare to be important for school, the workplace, and everyday life: communication, collaboration, creativity, EQ, problem solving, and reflection.
But don’t take my word for it; get out there and improv! Yes, and… you write what’s next.