I took my first improv class in December, 2012. At the beginning of the first session, my teacher told our class of 16 people that improvisers are the people everyone wants to be around. They are cleverer and quicker witted than the average person, he said. Because of the skills you will learn in this class, you will be an all-around better human. Learning to interact with a person onstage teaches you how to better interact with people offstage and gives you the skills to hone your comedic talent, whatever your larger goals may be.
Improv, in other words, isn’t just for actors and comedians: I truly believe it can help pretty much anyone! Whether you want to be less shy around new people or get quicker with comebacks at the dinner table or just have some fun, I recommend you try it out. To encourage you to do just that, I hereby present Sandy’s Guide to Improv and How It Will Definitely Enrich Your Life:
1. What the heck is improv, anyway?
Improv is short for improvisational theater. Basically, it’s a live performance of scenes that are created on the spot by the performers, working without a script. They have no idea what they’re gonna do when they walk onstage—they are literally making everything up as they go along. Improv has been around since the Ancient Roman Empire, when a largely improvised set of performances called the Atellan Farce became super popular (and eventually got banned because of their vulgarity!).
There are comedic and non-comedic forms of improv; I will be focusing on the comedic side, because that’s what I’m familiar with. Comedy improv is currently practiced in lots of different ways, but the two big, famous kinds are short-form and long-form. Short-form focuses on games—like the ones on Whose Line Is It Anyway? The format of these games is predetermined; the content is often guided by a suggestion from an audience member. Each one lasts just a few minutes (hence SHORT-form, get it?), then a new suggestion is given. On Whose Line they sometimes have the host pull suggestions out of a hat, in quick succession, to be acted out by the performers:
In long-form improv, each idea plays out for, typically, 15 to 25 minutes. After getting a random prompt, usually from the audience, a team of performance create a story together on the spot, onstage, with no consultation with one another beforehand or during. Here’s a good example of a long-form show from House of Lies Live, a special that aired on Showtime in December 2013 (sorry you have to sit through another ad!), with cast members Ben Schwartz, Kristen Bell, Don Cheadle, and others:
Here’s another one, from 2005: a special performance of ASSSSCAT, a show invented by the people who started the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh). The four of them, accompanied by a handful of other comedians, perform a series of connected scenes based on stories told by a couple of performers (in this case, Tina Fey and Andy Richter) chosen to do that night’s monologues:
2. Whoa, I Can’t Believe That’s Made Up! How Do They Know What to Say?
Improv has some basic rules by which almost all performers abide. The first one is: Always say yes. If someone has an idea, agree with them and build upon what they have created. Never deny something another person has said! This rule is also known as “Yes, And.” Let’s say your scene partner says, “I am your mother.” You can verbally acknowledge that they are your mother, or “yes, and” their assertion by acting the way a daughter would act around her mom, whether that means embarrassed, excited, or bored. From there, you build upon their decision (the “and” part) by deciding where this scene takes place, or how your character feels about her mother.
One time in a class I was in, a girl stepped onstage and said, in a fake British accent, “The dragons are coming! Hurray, we must fight them!” Her scene partner stepped out and said, in his American accent, “Come on, Emily, enough of this mystical stuff—you’re 18 years old now!” He totally denied everything she had set up: They were no longer British; there were no dragons. What’s more, he was calling her character crazy, which would call everything else she said or did in the rest of the scene into question. Now, you could argue that he was giving her opening a twist—we think we’re seeing one thing, then the camera pans back and we discover it’s something else altogether—but by doing so, he was basically vetoing all of her decisions about the scene. It was more a “no, but” than a “yes, and.” Improv is, above all, a collaboration: Everyone has to work together and support one another for a scene to work.
Saying yes and valuing teamwork: Those aren’t just good improv rules, they are great rules for LIFE. And they aren’t the only ones you learn in improv, as I’m about to show you.
Another important rule: Start scenes on a positive note. Scenes that start negatively often end up with the characters fighting (or dying).
But a scene that begins positively can expand infinitely into the universe of the group’s imagination! Let’s say someone gets a scene started by saying to someone else, “No one likes you at school—everyone thinks you’re weird.” The other performer has pretty much two possible responses: to agree with the speaker, or to argue with them. Either way, pretty depressing to watch (and probably to perform). But let’s say the first person had said, “Everyone loves you at school—you’re so weird.” The second performer now has so many choices! They don’t have to defend their weirdness or try to hide it—they can celebrate it! They can answer questions that the audience is probably wondering: What kind of weird? Why does everyone love it? What makes this character so appealing? There is infinite room for growth in this scene. And, guess what? This rule applies to life, too: If you start you day negatively, it’s gonna be a lot harder to move out of that rut and have a decent day. Start each day positively, and there’s no limit to where it can go.
3. OK OK, This Sounds Amazing! Where Can I See It?
There are a lot of improv theaters in the U.S. Here are some of the biggest ones:
- The Groundlings Theatre & School (L.A.). Notable alumni: Laraine Newman, Lisa Kudrow, Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Maya Rudolph.
- iO (Chicago) Notable alumni: Kristen Schaal, Cecily Strong, and Vanessa Bayer.
- The Magnet (NYC).
- The Peoples Improv Theater (NYC).
- The Second City (with locations in Chicago, Toronto, and Los Angeles). Alumni include Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, and Bill Murray.
- The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (New York City and Los Angeles). Alumni include Aubrey Plaza, Kate McKinnon, Ellie Kemper, and Lennon Parham. Also, our patron saint Amy Poehler is one of the theater’s founders!
If you don’t live near any of these major cities, that’s OK! There are tons of improve theaters all over the country; many of them are listed here. Unfortunately, improv is just starting to catch on in other countries, but Amsterdam has Boom Chicago, Sydney has Ground Zero Improv, and a bunch more are listed here. A good friend and teammate of mine just opened a theater in Iceland!
4. But I Don’t Want to Become a Professional Comedian. Why Should I Do Improv?
Although one of the things improv does best is to help you hone your comedic skills, it is also just insanely fun to do! Even if you don’t want to pursue comedy, it’s a great way to be silly on a stage with your friends. It’s a stress reliever and a way to feel creative when your world seems stifling. I just graduated from college in May, and I was afraid I’d be without a community, out in the world on my own. Luckily, I started performing with my team, Saint Nancy, in February, and I don’t feel alone anymore. My teammates have become some of my best friends. We practice and perform weekly, and it’s the most fun I have in my whole week! We even host a monthly show so that we get to see our other friends and people we admire do their thing. Improv is not just about training you for a career, it’s also very much about the community of wonderful people you’ll meet, and the happiness you’ll feel when you make people laugh. And when other people make you laugh. And when you make yourself laugh! I’ll be honest—I’m pretty much incapable of not breaking character and laughing onstage, because I’m just having too much fun. I think I’d feel very lost right now if I didn’t have Saint Nancy and the other friends I’ve met through performing.
5. Awww, Don’t Cry, Sandy! Now I Wanna Study Improv!
Many of the above-mentioned theaters also have training centers that offer courses at many levels. I study at the UCB in New York, and absolutely love it. Classes are a little expensive, usually $375 each. To help students fund these classes, they offer a Diversity Scholarship and an internship program.
If you are interested in doing some reading, check out Truth in Comedy, co-written by Del Close, a legendary Second City instructor; or The Comedy Improvisational Manual, written by three of the four founders of the UCB.
Now, GO ON! Get out there! Do your thing! Don’t stop till you drop! OK, but really just get out there and try it. I am positive you will love it. ♦