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LIFE, UNEDITED: 10 Things I Learned About Life in Improv

Letting go of control and staying present can lead to revelatory lessons.

loan blue chair reflected in mirror

I took my first improv class about a year ago. I don’t remember much of the evening — aside from the still-palpable feeling of my own terror.

The free, two-hour intro session was designed to give prospective students a taste of improvisational comedy through games and group exercises. It was designed to be low-key, safe, and accessible. It was meant to be a “fun” way to get out of our heads, into the present moment, and expand our horizons.

And yet, for this inveterate introvert who craves control and order, who thrives on premeditation in the form of to-do lists, detailed plans, curated calendars, and scripts, the class was something of a nightmare. I fell back on every (admittedly gross) nervous tick I had in my arsenal — wringing my hands, picking at my cuticles, biting my lower lip, chewing my inner cheeks — to keep from bee-lining it for the nearest exit. When class was over, the instructor actually thanked me for sticking it out. Then I rushed home, where I proceeded to lie on my bedroom floor, recovering in the quiet dark. I was exhausted and overwhelmed, and I also felt like I’d stumbled upon something important. Something worth exploring.

The next day, I signed up for a full eight-week Improv Level 1 course. And then Level 2, and finally Level 3. It was a couple of classes into the third session — about 20 classes already behind me — when it occurred to me that this is a fun thing to do. The feeling didn’t last long, but I didn’t care. I’d realized one thing during that first intro class, a lesson that recurred each week when I rallied to show up: I’m uncomfortable. I’m afraid. But improv isn’t going to kill me. I wonder what’ll happen if I keep going.

You may think I’m crazy, and I’m not going to try to convince you that I’m not. What I will say is that one of the main tenets I try to live by is, If what you fear won’t kill you or hurt others, follow the fear and see what you discover. I don’t always succeed in following this philosophy; when I do, I always learn something about myself, about my reactions and resistances, and about the things I truly do and don’t like. In these instances, fear gives me a sign and curiosity serves as my guide. In the autumn of 2015, fear led me to improv and a bevy of new experiences, new insights, and new tools for living. (It did not, it turns out, lead to a new career or long-term hobby.)

Here are a few of those lessons:

  1. Yes, and . . . These two words form the backbone of improv. No and Yes, but . . . arefast ways to shut down a scene. It’s a rejection of your scene partner and the world you’re creating together. It’s amazing to observe this in real-life settings. In a brainstorming meeting, no’s and buts stunt creativity, whereas “Yes, and” provides recognition and adds a new layer to build on. In conversations with friends, partners, even ourselves, no’s and buts get in the way of intimacy and compassion. Yes, and is not about being a “Yes Man.” It doesn’t mean giving up a piece of yourself to please others, or compromising your needs or values to serve another person or situation. Yes, and is not a sign of acquiescence, but rather acceptance, recognition, and an invitation to explore.
  1. There are rules, which means improv is a skill you can learn and practice. There’s a preconceived notion that you have to be naturally funny and have a knack for performing in order to be good at improv. Not so. You show up, put in the reps, learn the skills, practice the skills, make mistakes, are decidedly not funny, are sometimes very funny, and over time it becomes more natural. I think this speaks to our reluctance in life to try things that don’t come easy. Hard isn’t “bad.” Eventually you get better at the hard thing, and may find something you really love. Or you find something you really hate, not because you fear it but because you simply don’t like it, and that’s good to know as well.
  1. You can’t break it. As someone whose personal refrain for a long time was “I think I broke it” — “it” being my body, my relationships, my laptop, etc. — many people have this fear that they alone can destroy everything in their lives irreparably. That can lead to trying to control everything and everyone, and carrying a lot of guilt/shame/disappointment/self-blame when things don’t go according to plan. In improv, you approach scenes from a place of “it can’t be broken.” All you have to do is show up and participate; speak, even if you don’t know what to say or do. Whatever happens, you (and your scene partners) can handle it. It’s an incredibly empowering mindset.
  1. Be patient with the discomfort. It took me 20 weeks of classes to get to a point where I thought “this is kinda fun.” I stuck with it during that time because I knew my fear of speaking, performing, and being seen/heard, was going to stand in the way of my ability to have fun. I wanted to stay until the fear was out of the way — knowing that at that point there was a perfectly good chance of not liking it. If I’d given into the paralyzing fear of the first class and never gone back, it would have been a lie to tell people, “I just didn’t like it.” When you’re scared, you don’t know what you like.
  1. Respond, don’t react. Many improv games focus on responding rather than reacting. We’re encouraged to take our time in order to be thoughtful about our responses, and to actually listen to our scene partners instead of thinking about only what we’re going to say next. For me, practicing this in improv has carried over into real life. I interact differently with people now; I’m not sure if others notice it, but for me the interactions seem richer because I’m not trying to be what someone else needs or to extract what I think I need. When I’m actually responding, there’s no agenda.
  1. Shut up and listen. You don’t have to fill empty space. You don’t have to respond immediately. One of my classmates was a challenge to work with: She was loud and proud and did not listen to her scene partners; she tried to control them and the scene, and would come back to her preconceived idea of what the story should be no matter what was going on around her. About halfway through one class, she had a realization: “I don’t know how to listen,” she told us. Just saying the words changed her demeanor, and she started listening. Suddenly, she was fun to do scenes with.
  1. You have a voice: Find it. Use it. Improv is really big on methods to help you define your “character,” a.k.a. yourself. Who are you? What do you feel? What do you want? Knowing yourself helps situate you in the world you’re creating, and you have a say in who you are. One way we do this is by making declarations: I AM (mad, sad, glad, afraid, hungry, etc.). Know yourself, know your needs, know your wants, know your motivations, and relating to others becomes instantly easier. Declarations create vulnerability; questions deflect attention from you and put the onus on your partner.
  1. Stay present. If you’re thinking ahead, or regretting the past, or letting your mind wander, you lose the moment and stop listening to your scene partner. There’s nowhere to go from the past or future — you can act only in the present moment.
  1. You’re not alone. Like life, improv is not a solo endeavor. Sometimes you can serve yourself, sometimes you can serve your scene partner(s), sometimes you serve the scene. If you get your ego out of the way, and listen and observe, your intuition will guide you. You might make mistakes, but nothing in improv is irreparable, and you have your support system (scene partners) to work it out with you.
  1. Sweep. When a scene hits a high note, or if a scene isn’t working, those are cues for the actors to “sweep” and end it. The lesson here is that we have control over sticking it out or walking away. Recognizing that we can let something go either because it’s already peaked or because it’s no longer serving us is a revelatory lesson.

Maggie Fazeli Fard, RKC, is an Experience Life senior editor.

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