Five lessons I learned from my very first improv class

I took my first comedy improv class because it was tantalizingly called “Improv for Shy People.” As my teacher from another class pointed out, there’s probably no difference between the shy people class and a regular class, except who it attracts (this teacher is good at provoking anxiety that inspires, plus it was a no-refunds situation).

As expected, we were of varying degrees of shyness and different from each other: a German software engineer, a young lady who had a tennis match right afterwards, a guy in training for his first Spartan race, other assorted, risk-taking souls, and my lovely friend who agreed to take the class with me, and is generally fearless. Our coach was an enthusiastic, warm sprite, who gently embedded lessons on fearlessness, mindfulness, and intuition in her explanations of improv technique.

Also as expected, the lessons of the class will serve me well not only in improv, but in life.

1. Trust that when you go for it, you will be supported by others.

Improv only works if you and your fellow group members constantly step in to move the scene forward. It’s always potentially your turn, so the moment that I threw out a line or a gesture, I was the “man in the arena,” and I wasn’t alone for long — my group laughed with me and helped me out. We were all struck at how our impulse to help another overcame our shyness, time and again. A friend of mine reminds me often: “Leap, and the net will appear.” Improv is proof that this is true — and reciprocal. Sometimes you’re the one who leaps, sometimes you’re the net.

2. Don’t overthink it.

In improv, whatever I did was gone in the next instant. Since success and failure are fleeting, a) there’s no time to beat myself up for things that didn’t turn out great, and b) I need to keep building on the momentum. It’s better to do something at all than not do something that might have been perfect. We did a couple exercises where it wasn’t clear who was leading and who was following, but you could feel your way through it, just trusting your instincts. This is huge for me, because it interrupts the smooth grooves of overthinking, hesitation, and fear that so many of my thoughts have traveled for a long time. Since I love to ruminate about the past or the future, improv was great practice being in the moment — I didn’t have time to judge myself by thinking, “that is the worst impression of a boulder EVER,” because I had to become a carrot next. Improv helped me practice being responsive rather than reactive.

3. Make the other person look/feel good.

We did a lot of exercises in pairs, and our coach reminded us to check in with our choices — was the other person having fun? Was I setting them up well? Was I taking up too much space or leaving too much of a gap? Could I lead as well as follow? The interaction also helped keep it positive. When a partner and I had to take turns telling a story, we were pleasantly surprised at what a sweet, heart-warming story we created: a magical pastry chef whose secret birthday cake recipe could only be handed down to someone pure of heart. He didn’t suddenly say, “And the cakes turned out to be poisonous.” In our hearts, I think we want to build on goodness, not to dismiss darkness or sadness, but to balance it. One of the engines of improv is the Golden Rule, and that makes me warm in the cockles of my heart.

4. Applaud yourself for showing up — for trying, for failing, for trying again.

The failure bow is when you recognize a mistake, and throw up your arms like a gymnast, and say proudly, “I failed!” and then immediately move on. Attaching Amy Cuddy’s “power poses” to a moment that would otherwise embarrass me was another neural interruption, because it made me own it and feel fine about it, rather than rush to hide it. As our coach reminded us, making a mistake is evidence that you tried. Each failure bow is more proof I can survive anything, because I’m still alive and willing when my arms come down and have to make like a tree, or a rabbit, or a fork.

5. We’re all in this together.

Eye contact is required in the larger group exercises, especially when several imaginary balls are in the air at once — it’s the only way you can communicate, without speaking, that you’re available for interaction. In an exercise called “Convergence,” pairs of people keep saying words that relate until a pair of people say the same word. We’re all traveling together, and we can get on the same wavelength by looking for connections. In improv, you’re either requesting help or giving it, thanking each other explicitly, and tuning into the shared frequencies, with or without words. We want to buoy each other along.

Exactly one year ago, someone asked me to take an improv class with them, and I think my exact words were, “No fucking way.” So a lot happened in the last year, including small nudges that made the impossible possible, and then made it something I did and loved, and will do again.

My thanks to Rebecca our coach, my friend C., all my classmates, and all the people who said or did something over the past year that finally brought me to BATS on a Saturday morning to laugh for three hours. So today and everyday, I will endeavor to step forward for others, ask for help, be open for interaction, say please and thank you, and take a bow when I screw up, because what is life if not a very long-form improv set.