Improv. Frequent flier miles! Cages! Butterflies! A country song!
These are random things audience members yell out during an Improv show when topics are being solicited for comics to work with.
How do people come up with this shit? Here are a bunch of people up on stage trying to be creative and they end up having to come up with a story about…a country boy who lost his heart to a horrible woman? *Sigh*
What is Improv?
Improv is a type of theatre where performance is unplanned or unscripted; almost everything is spontaneous. Examples of famous improv performers are Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and Wayne Brady. A really popular show is Whose Line Is It Anyway? You’re given prompts and need to come up with something on the spot.
For the record, I love watching improv. But I hate doing it, just like I don’t like eating vegetables but know it’s good for me. I struggle to stay in the present mentally, and when my instructor or an audience member forces me to come up with something from nothing, or expand on something ambiguous, I get in total nightmare mode. It’s extra brutal after a horrid day at work where I prefer to dive into a sanctuary comprised of a television show where I judge characters when they do stupid stuff. Fuck saying ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ (for those of you who don’t know, it’s one of the cardinal rules of improv).
But, to defend this ludicrous form of art, it makes sense to force creatives to try it at least once. The whole point of being creative is to come up with new things and new ways of doing things. I admit improv is actually a great way to expand your mind. Anyone who paints, writes, dances knows when they’re in a rut. Improv can help because– for lack of a better cliche– you need to think outside the box.
I like the end result of improv; but I hate the process of getting to the result I need. Improv exposes the fact that I am constantly overthinking and thinking in multiple directions at once, which tends to paralyse me in my everyday life – whether I’m receiving instructions from someone (especially if they’re verbal) or when I think of all the questions I have if someone is explaining a concept to me before they’re done.
On stage it’s no different. When I have to make up the conversation as I go along with my improv partner about a damn tea kettle (again, who comes up with this shit?) I would blank. Many times I would say something totally off topic and non-sensical that my partner – especially if they are inexperienced, would either not be able to reply to, or would have to go to great lengths to course correct. And a lot of times I felt completely inept and consequently guilty for derailing them. Being an empath sucks sometimes.
But it’s important to remember that like anything creative, practicing improv is like a muscle. I did about two sessions of eight classes, and towards the end, I think I was ok. Ultimately it’s not my calling. What it was, was a tool to get me out of my head. It wasn’t a distraction like a piece of delicious cake, or going clubbing and drinking; it was a rigorous mental and creative endeavour that exposed me to what I needed to work on for my creative juices to flow.
Creative Crutches: What Did I (and Maybe You) Need to Work on?
Making mistakes and making them fast. When something was off, I course-corrected quickly when I was able to. What took time wasn’t the course-correcting itself, but getting comfortable with discomfort. That way, my mind could chill out and focus on the exercise at hand.
Abandoning something when it was shit. The clock had to run out for me to throw up my hands when something wasn’t working (many improv exercises are timed). But for someone who has a hard time letting go, who thought she was a failure when she wasn’t able to fix or conquer something–learning to abandon a lost cause was a tough lesson I had to learn repeatedly.
Just showing up. This isn’t so much a mistake as it is a crappy habit. When I didn’t feel like doing something, I wouldn’t do it. But I had to show up to improv, because I would be disappointing my classmates if I didn’t and wasting money. And, despite my claim earlier of just wanting to watch TV after a bad day, if I suck it up and choose to haul myself to a class, l always leave feeling accomplished. Yes, it’s usually what I had needed. After all, what you need is what you resist.
Being ok with looking daft. I don’t want to use the word stupid because it has a negative connotation in my self-esteem vocabulary, and daft is a…kinder substitute. Sure, I was in a safe environment and most people– especially the beginners– looked daft not just when they screwed up, but because of the sheer ridicule of the exercises. But after a while, it really wasn’t a big deal. And I got comfortable with feeling lost, or simply not knowing what to do. Sometimes my instructor guided me, sometimes he didn’t, and that was ok. That’s how it is in life anyway. When someone shows up to help you, you know you need guidance, but when there was no one there, it was God’s (or the universe’s) way of telling you: this is your solo test. Now go grow.
If I dig deep, I think what I hate most about improv is the lack of clarity. I suffer from mild anxiety, and acute, debilitating attacks when my life is going extra bad. Lack of clarity makes it worse. The brain craves certainty, safety and security when it’s anxious so dealing with ambiguity is like rubbing salt on an angry wound.
But that’s usually why someone like me needs it. When I studied burlesque, there was a module on improv. It existed because performers needed to know how to react when a prop malfunctioned, or when an act derailed. It was part of building a toolbox that would make us resilient to unforeseen circumstances.
Yes, I hate improv, but I’ll probably take classes every few years to stay sharp as a creative. I’m no aspiring contestant on Whose Line Is It Anyway? But I can sure as hell take lessons from this energizing art form to apply to many aspects of my life; like dealing with a conversation that could get out of hand because I said something wrong, or staying cool when my chocolate souffle collapses for the fifteenth time.