All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned from Improv

This essay was originally written as a lay-sermon for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Oak Cliff, and appeared in my “Sunday Brunch” column in the now-defunct e-zine ALL THINGS GIRL. It ran in January, 2010.

Photo by Vadim Fomenok on UnsplashA decade ago, I hadn’t done a lot improv. I mean, I’d done some in school, and had done some street theatre as an adult, but if you’d asked me about my future, spending several years in a professional improvisational comedy troupe would not have come up. But then, neither would have being a regular member of an audio improv show, a cast member of several audio dramas, or the narrator of an audio book.

Even so, sometime in 2003, I found myself being dragged by my friend Jeremy to the improv bootcamp being led by a mutual friend of ours, Clay. Initially, I was nervous – I hadn’t really played any theatre games since high school, and the skills that I had were beyond rusty. Nevertheless, after an intense day of both physical and verbal warm-ups, tableaux drills and basic scene-play, I was hooked.

Four years later, again at the urging of my friend Clay, I auditioned for ComedySportz on a lark because I wanted to make some friends who had nothing to do with the mortgage industry. I left the audition thinking I’d be asked if I still wanted to sign up for the class I’d initially queried them about, but the next day I was invited to join the troupe, and all too soon, I was performing every weekend, and then staying out until the wee hours of the morning talking about the show we’d just done, or about improv in general.

I had also become so much more confident in myself that I dyed my hair pink, fled corporate America for a freelance writing career, and started seeking out new opportunities to stretch myself – things like speaking in my local church, writing actual scripts for favorite audio dramas, and committing to a more active role here at ATG.

More than once in the intervening years, I’ve found myself talking improv with fellow performers, either after a show, or during a pause in a recording session – discussing how we bring improvisational techniques into our off-stage lives. Also more than once, I’ve found myself trying to explain to non-improvisers what it is I love about the art form, and more, how the concepts I’d learned from improvisational theatre can be applied to every aspect of life.

In no particular order, here are some examples:

Don’t Perform; Play.

Like many other art forms, improv is make-believe for adults, and it works best when you stop worrying about entertaining other people, and just play.

When you play, you’re less self-conscious, and more in the moment. You think faster, listen better, and are generally more responsive. It’s not about the performance, it’s about the experience. In life, we make deeper connections when we stop worrying about impressions, and just let ourselves be in the moment.

Support Your Partner.

In improvisation, we’re taught that not only is there no “I” in “team,” but that the job of each player is to make everyone else look good.

At ComedySportz, before each show, we would literally pat each other on the back, and say, “I’ve got your back,” to lend assurance that no matter what happened, no one was going out there alone. In life, we also have to support each other.

We have one world, one community, one extended family. If we don’t stick up for each other, who will?

Claim Your Mistakes.

We’re often told we learn from our mistakes, and that learning how to fail is just as important as learning to succeed. New improvisers are taught to take deep bows even when they utterly failed in a scene, not to celebrate the failure, but to celebrate the fact that they tried. Accepting that we all make mistakes helps us handle setbacks more gracefully.

Improv also reminds us that as long as we respond truthfully – with honest emotion – there are no wrong answers. True, there are high percentage and lower percentage choices, but even the “bad” choices can still lead us in new directions. Remember the words of Thomas Edison, who, when trying to develop a working light bulb, reportedly said, “I haven’t failed; I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Pay Attention.

How many times in your life has a parent or teacher admonished you to “Pay attention!” How many times has a child implored you to “Listen to me!”

In improv, if you aren’t paying attention to your partners, you miss vital information. After all, improv is often all about endowment, and if you don’t hear someone introducing you as their husband/sister/next door neighbor/English teacher/whatever, you won’t know how best to add to the scene in progress.

In life, lack of attention means anything from hurt feelings to actual injuries (How many of us have been behind a driver not using turn signals? How many of us have forgotten to signal turns?)

Be Specific.

In improvisation, in writing, and in life, specifics matter.

Specifics are the difference between, “I wish I had some help with editing,” and “Becca, would you mind proofreading something for me?” They’re the difference between, “I’m in a bad mood,” and “I’m angry at you because you forgot to take the garbage out. Again.” It’s the difference between two people talking on an empty stage and two people at a bar, or in the park, or in the kitchen, even if the lines don’t change, and the set pieces exist only in the imagination.

Yes, And…

There’s an improv mantra, of sorts, that goes, “You can’t deny another person’s reality; you can only build on it.” The shorthand version of this – as well as being the central tenet of improvisation in general – is “agree and add,” or, in the more popular vernacular, “Yes, and.”

On stage, this means that you take whatever another improviser has given you, and expand it. It is building momentum, instead of allowing inertia.

“Here I’ve brought you a mug of coffee,” someone might say.

“Yes, and now my brain will kick into gear and I can solve the energy crises,” their scene partner might answer.

When you say “Yes, and” you’re validating what another person has said, and adding something new. In its broadest sense, “Yes, and” is saying yes to everything life throws at you – good or bad – and then adding to it. It is accepting the reality of any given situation, and then being willing to take the next step.

This doesn’t mean that finding a way to respond “Yes, and” to every situation requires you to be happy and perky.

“Honey, I crashed the car into a tree,” your spouse or partner could inform you, one evening.

“Yes, and now that I know you’re okay, I’ll find the insurance agent’s number,” you might respond if you’re incredibly calm, but it would be an equally valid response if you said, “Yes, and it’s a good thing you didn’t die in the process, because now I can kill you myself!”

Even in a less-than-positive situation, “Yes, and” continues the conversation.

Every time we try something new, face a fear, engage in conversation with a stranger, we’re really saying “Yes, and,” to the universe. Whether you’re sharing a personal essay, publishing a poem you worked on for hours, or giving your treasured short story or novel to the readers of the world, you are doing it, too.

“I’ve created this thing,” you are saying.

“Yes, and, we are going to experience it,” your audience replies.

If you’re lucky they’ll build further on that, with a comment, a review, a recommendation, or even just passing on a link or giving their copy of your work to a friend.

If I’d never done improv, I’d probably still have left the mortgage industry, but I probably wouldn’t have auditioned for audio dramas or agreed to speak in a church, or tutored a friend’s son in English (I’m not terribly child-friendly) or any number of other things I’ve done since my “conversion” from muggle to improviser.

I’ve internalized a lot of the improv principles I’ve shared today, but I still have to make a conscious effort to replace “No, because,” or “Yes, but,” with “Yes, and,” when I’m feeling grumpy or snarky or shy.

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It.

Yes.

And.

The play of life? It’s unscripted.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned from Improv by Melissa Bartell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.