Unexpected Improv Epiphanies

The lessons learned that I hadn’t planned for

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink is what first inspired me to take an improv class. When he wrote about how improv taps into the magic of one’s first instincts and intuition, sidestepping the paralysis of analytical thought on overdrive, I thought, YES. That’s what I need!

I certainly learned lessons about how to stay in the present moment and follow my instincts. But the lessons that have resonated with me most are not the ones I traditionally hear touted as selling points for taking on a comfort zone-pushing endeavor like improv. So I decided to write about it in the hopes that it might convince more people to take the plunge, especially those who are thinking to themselves that they could never do it.

Am I good at this? Scratch that. Am I having fun?

My sister called immediately after my first class to see how it went. I said, “I think I’m going to enjoy it and learn a lot, but I’m not really very good at it.”

“Seriously?” she said. “You literally have two hours under your belt and you’ve decided you’re not good at it.”

Leaping to sweeping conclusions is a specialty of mine. So is changing my mind. “I’m great at this!” and “I suck at this!” were both sentiments I’d felt with equal conviction depending on the class. Clearly part of the lesson here is about perspective, but my bigger takeaway is that at some point I wondered to myself why my improv ability, or lack thereof, was at all relevant. Why should it be?

I revisited the reasons I signed up in the first place: to push through the paralysis of overthinking; to find the edge of my comfort zone and cross it; and to have fun. These meaningful motivations left no room for questions or concerns about whether or not I was “good” at improv, and this mental shift completely took the pressure off.

I have a right to be here

In a partner exercise, our teacher Caroline instructed one person to embody a “low-status” character and the other a “high-status” character. After a few lines of dialogue, we switched character statuses, but held on to our same dialogue. It was amazing to start as the low-status character and say the same lines as a high-status character: confident, self-assured, and unapologetic. It changed everything.

“Channel the high-status character” became my mantra after I solicited general feedback from Caroline and received this reply:

I’m noticing your tendency to show your self-doubt visibly in your facial expressions and body language. I’ve seen you grimace or shake your head at your own choices. Don’t judge yourself so negatively, and try not to physically display your discomfort in a scene, because it makes the audience assume that you said something wrong, when you haven’t! Focus on saying things with confidence, even if you have to fake it until you gain real confidence. Channel that high-status character!

I will carry this lesson with me the rest of my life. I summoned that inner strength as I walked, terrified, to the theater for our Level 1 showcase. “See how this makes you feel,” Caroline had instructed while we practiced silly walks at different speeds and contorted our bodies into different shapes. On my way to the performance, I swung my arms freely and felt each step propel me forward with intention and purpose. My body sent a message to my anxious mind: I have just as much a right to be here as anyone else.

Good listeners are remarkable improvisers

Now that was a skill I was confident about from the beginning: a willingness to listen and to turn over the spotlight when it best serves the story.

I’ve been told I’m a good listener throughout my life, which I took less as a compliment and more as a sign that I am generally unremarkable (like when someone says, “Oh, Hope? She’s nice.” The worst). Improv was the first experience that demonstrated to me in a concrete way that listening is its own form of dynamic energy. It is an unexpected secret sauce to successful scene-building.

“People don’t realize that improv is not about you,” a friend who works in theater told me when I asked for advice. I got the same input from a professional actress and improviser: “Resist the temptation to make yourself the center of attention. It’s much more interesting if you use your moment in the spotlight to set your cast mates up for success.”

I swelled with pride as I discovered that listening, a skill not typically associated with performance, translated into smart and strategic creative choices. I helped make scenes better because of my natural listening instincts. Improv has helped me see that keen listening is indeed remarkable. And it is often game-changing.

You will surprise yourself

“There’s no way I could do that,” I would always think to myself after watching an improv performance. I’ve always preferred written over verbal communication. When I do give presentations, I take comfort in having a prepared script. That’s basically the opposite of improv.

Fear of the unknown and the desperation to have control is deeply primal. Though improv stripped my preparation instinct of its power, I tried to exercise it like a phantom limb. Every night for a week I fell asleep to story idea drills from random words (Lamp! Chair! Pillow!). And I thought I might faint for the first time in my life as I waited in a dark, damp hallway backstage with weak knees and a pounding heart.

But then we took the stage and entered a different dimension. I imagine it’s not unlike the sensation experienced by a soldier in battle or an athlete in a high-stakes game: a heightened awareness, the slipping away of extraneous details, the trippy Matrix-like suspension of the rules of space and time. When Caroline asked us afterwards how we felt about the performance, several of us paused and said, “… Um, we’re not sure. What just happened?”

I am still shocked that I had a stream of immediate ideas onstage. I can’t prove it, but I don’t think I would have come up with these ideas in one of my forced bedtime drills. It’s amazing what you can do when you have no escape route. The hardest part is putting yourself in the position necessary to discover what happens.

High, low, and human

To say that you will surprise yourself is not to gloss over the fact that you will have high energy moments and low energy moments. Not only is this okay, but it is exactly what it means to be a human being.

After signing up for Level 1, I attended an improv performance and noticed not every scene hit it out of the park with the audience. As a new student, I was comforted by this. You win some, you lose some, and you spend a lot of time in the gray area in between. The low energy or neutral moments did not change my opinion that this was a talented group. I finally realized that I was holding myself, and myself alone, to ridiculous, unrealistic standards. I began to perceive my low energy moments in class not as falling short but as a wave receding, a natural course of events. Luckily, like I said before, the responsibility of carrying the show forward does not fall squarely on your shoulders.

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter

I prefer the idea of taking risks in front of strangers I’ll likely never see again. That’s why I forced myself to invite my friends and family to my performance.

I cut the teeth of my anxiety by openly talking about it. I warned people about the possibility that I would have an off night: what if they came all the way to see me and I froze and literally said nothing? One friend said, “You know we’re not going so we can be entertained, right? We’re going to support you and be in awe of what you’re doing. It literally does not matter what you say.” (Thanks, Ashley L.!) It was just the medicine I needed. I needed to know that regardless of what happened on that stage, I would still wake up the next morning and have people in my life who care about me. You can know that in your head, but there’s something wonderfully therapeutic about walking that journey and actually experiencing it.

Given the essence and spirit of improv, it seems fitting that the lessons that resonated most deeply are not the lessons I went in planning to learn. I guess this was improv’s one last cheeky message for me. Like life, it keeps you on your toes.