President Bartlet: You got a best friend?
Roger Tribbey: Yes, sir.
Bartlet: Is he smarter than you?
Roger Tribbey: [chuckles] Yes, sir.
Bartlet: Would you trust him with your life?
Roger Tribbey: Yes, sir.
Bartlet: That’s your chief of staff.
— “He Shall, from Time to Time…”, The West Wing, Season 1, Episode 12
When I found improv I experienced a visceral rush of strange thoughts and powerful emotions as I watched my first show.
How are they doing this?
Is this real? This can’t be real. It’s a trick.
I want to do this. I want to be on stage with them right now.
I didn’t know human beings could do this.
How are they so funny and clever?
I haven’t laughed like this at the theatre in … wait, I’ve never laughed like this in a theatre.
I want to do this so much.
If I concentrate, I’ll see how it works. Perhaps they have ear pieces?
Ok, I’m going to run away to Chicago. Maybe I could fit in one of their suitcases?
It was a lot.
But the overwhelming, overriding thought, that kept coming back to me again and again, was this:
Finally I’d found something I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. Finally after chasing the secondhand smoke of scripted theatre, stand-up and sketch comedy I’d discovered the thing that lit me up from the inside.
Finally, finally, finally I’d found an art form that felt like home.
And the interesting thing is, speaking to other improvisers over this subsequent decade of learning, performing and eventually teaching improv, is that my story is in no way unique. Again and again I hear the same thing — It clicked almost immediately. I knew I had to do it. It was inevitable.
The polymathematically brilliant Craig Cackowski once asked my class to remember the first improv show we’d ever seen. His question was
What attracted you to it?
And almost universally we answered the same way — They were having such fun. They seemed to like each other so much. I wanted to be a part of that.
Now, in my mind’s eye, Craig smiles and steeples his fingers knowingly (although this might be an embellishment on the part of my mind’s eye)
Well, he says, then don’t you have a responsibility to lead with joy and be that show for the next generation of improvisers?
I believe this is true with every muscle, fibre and cell of my body. I think we owe it to the survival of our art form to go on stage every night and downright revel in the beauty and the play of it all. To love our scene partners, to elevate their ideas and to have the most fun. If improv is a happy ideas virus then we need to be positively wretched with infection.
And to do that you need to find your tribe. Your tribe within your tribe. Not just improvisers in general but the special ones within that community that make your heart sing and your improv sense tingle.
We’ve all felt it. Sometimes you go on stage with another improviser and all the effort just melts away. It could be someone you’ve worked with for years or it could be a totally new face at a jam or festival mixer. Either way, if there’s truly magic in this world it’s suddenly there on stage with you. Every offer is picked up, every narrative beat honoured, every joke exquisitely paced and delivered. It just works.
These are your people. Remember them. Hunt them down. Work with them more.
I feel extremely lucky in this regard. With Project2 I am constantly inspired to work with a bunch of brilliant nerds who also happen to be working at the top of their game. With The Maydays I’ve somehow managed to be embraced by a group of improv veterans (with 100s of years of collective experience) that nevertheless play with the unbridled joy of a newly formed team. And in Unmade Theatre Co, I get to dream bigger and deeper, to create new theatrical forms of improv with brave kindred spirits.
Some of these opportunities I’ve gone out and created. Others I’ve fallen into through a combination of enthusiasm and blind luck. But the fact remains it all hinges on identifying the people that make your improv console blink all its lights at once and then MAKING SPACE TO WORK WITH THEM.
Over and above the groups I’m in, I have a master list of improvisers I’ve met all over the world that I’m determined to work with — you know who you are because I’ve talked excitedly about collaborating with you (probably at about 3am at a street party on the last night of a festival). Make these conversations happen. Dream a little bigger than is comfortable.
So yeah, that’s my advice. We’re lucky to have found improv and the people that do it. It’s a great gang. It’s tempting to just pull up a chair and talk to the nearest person. But go that extra mile and find your true collaborators.
And then go and make something only you could make.
Hello. I’m Chris. I’m an improviser, director and podcaster. If you like this article then consider sharing it with your own improv community. You can find out more about me on my website — take a workshop with me, see one of my shows or just listen to my improv podcast. You can subscribe to my newsletter here.