It’s All Just Improv
If you’ve ever felt weird, misunderstood, or like an outsider, improv could be just the thing for you. It could help you finally focus all that pent up energy you’ve spent trying to justify your “quirkiness” to people. Or even if you’ve felt completely normal but just always up for a challenge, step right up to the improv plate.
The cool thing about improv is that it’s for anyone and everyone. It’s inclusive. It’s a home for the nerds, the theater kids, or even the corporate lawyers who need an outlet after they loosen their neck ties. You can be a tall out of shape Wall Street banker and find your place in an improv class. You can be the introverted girl who took 24 years to come out of her shell and was so quiet all her teachers thought she was a mute (this is totally NOT autobiographical, for the record). You can be the ex-All American athlete, the outcast, the book worm, the introvert, the adult with chronic social anxiety, or even the serial NYC dater always trying to get over another loser and finally doing something for herself for once.
A class full of improv students is a beautiful thing, because, many have signed up for an array of reasons and are brought together with a singular purpose. It’s free therapy for many. It’s a healthy outlet. Some join because they’re narcissistic and think they’re the groundbreaking new talent SNL’s missing since its birth. Some just think it will be fun. And many more join because they need to break out of their shells, wanting to overcome fears of social interaction and rejection.
But, the real beauty of it all is in the singular goal of the class — to overcome this idea of fear. A fear of judgement and failure. A fear of looking like a fool. A fear of thinking you’re saying the wrong thing. The fear that you need to filter your thoughts to make sure they’re precise and perfect before acting.
The reality is you don’t have time to think about being afraid because there is no time. Improv is quick. It forces you to efficiently tap into the depths of your wit, while having faith a fully-formed thought will come out of your brain. This occurs all while synapses are firing off wildly, and adrenaline is uncontrollably pumping through your body as you stand up incredibly vulnerable, naked, against a bare, black wall, often with a few lonely wooden chairs propped up against it.
Every moment you waste in responding or initiating is a ticking time bomb in your hands. You hold the power to be fearless, to abandon all inhibitions, to listen and react as best you can while supporting those classmates around you. You hold the power to create something out of nothing. And it’s addicting.
Coming to class forces you to be present, to put on a brave face for yourself and for your team mates because you have to agree to “Yes And” for yourself and for them. You leave your bad day at the door. You leave that un-air-conditioned F train and man with his armpit in your face during the commute at the door. You leave that spilled cold brew on your new blouse at the door. You leave that working your ass off for three years and still no promotion at the door. You check all your troubles.
You’re forced to be mindful and in the moment with the people around you and with the reality you are creating together. You’re also taught to become a better listener, which is one of the greatest gifts anyone could ever be given.
You are building your own world from nothing with these people that become fast friends. You giggle at the absurdity of it all, at every bizarre moment of this “reality” you create together, but it’s so damn beautiful. It’s safe and it’s wild and it’s a crazy sort of a rush. And, for a few hours you just silently agree with each other to give it your all. Like any other art form, you commit. You must. That is the unspoken agreement. To commit to the craft. To go all in with a scene no matter how outlandish, no matter the character or the premise or the far-fetched accent or the dialogue. You just do it.
I had to untrain my standup comedy mind to make it less about me. Improv is less about the one-liners. It’s less flashy. It’s like building a house from the ground up. You make it sturdy and strong in the foundation. You worry about the decor after, and stop trying to decorate it and make it showy from the start. It has to be strong, and you need other people to do that, who agree to do it with you, who are all in.
My eyes opened wide when our teacher said “It’s less about being funny, and more about having fun.”
The more I let that settle, the more the scenes meant to me, and the stronger, and funnier the scenes became organically. I stopped trying to force in jokes for instant laughs that standup had groomed me for and I stopped letting my wit overshadow the integrity of what improv is all about — establishing a reality, finding the “game” or pattern of the scene, and having fun. And doing all these things with brilliant, hilarious people that you can be yourself with is the best part.
And life, like an improv scene, well, you never really know where it’s headed — and embracing it wholeheartedly while having a little faith can do a world of wonders. That’s what improv has taught me — roll with the tide, the punches, and whatever is thrown at you, no matter how challenging or weird it may be.
I also learned you don’t have time in life to waste being afraid either. After doing my first standup set a little over a year ago, which took serious convincing from a former supervisor, I felt like I could conquer a lot of things in life after conquering my biggest fear — public speaking. Since then, I’ve done my best to overcome other small things that scare me. I encourage myself by thinking back on those five life-changing minutes when I stood on a tiny stage in a basement bar in front of a crowd full of strangers.
For the first time in my life, I was completely vulnerable and open. I was completely myself and I spilled my guts by telling some very personal jokes. Since then, I measure life in increments of five — I just try to be brave and “Fearless for Five.” And if I can do that, then I try for another five minutes, and then things aren’t so scary. If I have a sibling or friend who is afraid to do something or nervous for an interview, a big presentation, event, or the like, I give them the same advice — to just be brave, and breathe, and think in these small increments.
It’s like climbing a mountain very slowly. Once you get to the top, it’s a relief, and then you climb down, and feel accomplished. But there’s always another mountain in the distance. Still, you learn from climbing the first one how to tackle the second one. You’re better for it. But, it’s definitely less intimidating the second, third, fourth, etc. time around.
There’s power in being brave, even for just a few minutes. Know how powerful you are as an individual, and know that when things don’t go your way, stop and listen to the signs and people around you. Then maybe laugh a little. Life’s mostly improv anyway.