Unlearnings from the improv class

This weekend I went to my first improv class in a little while.

Improv has been one of those things the younger me would have been initially shocked at; realised made a lot of sense; then finally saw the tension:

Telling stories, trying new ideas, setting up random situations: yes!

Introvert, prefer control over surroundings, happiest in mind over body: no way.

And so, as expected, the class was fun but tough. In fact, it was much tougher than I expected. 

I went in feeling good and confident, and left remembering that as with many things in life, the more we learn, the more we realise we still have to learn.

During my 3 hours in that rehearsal room at New York’s Simple Studios, a few things – a few learnings, a few unlearnings – jumped out.

Thinking, not thinking

I felt rusty having not been to a class for a few months, but the lack of practice wasn’t the biggest blocker.

The biggest blocker was thinking.

Just like learning how much there is still to learn, the best way to approach an improv class is by acknowledging the open space, but not thinking about it. It feels counter-intuitive because to learn, respond, communicate, we have to learn.

Yet thinking we have a clear mind is not at all the same as actually having a clear mind.

That’s why the class warmup games are designed to ‘get you out of your head’.

Asking questions

‘Yes, and…’ is probably rule number 1 in improv. Following in the peloton, and very much on the same team, is asking questions.

This was my first class since finishing my coaching certification, and I’ve spent a lot of time honing my ability to ask probing questions. This skill can be helpful in improv, but more often it puts too much onto a scene partner. As part of my learning, I had to unlearn going for a question.

Here are the opening lines from one of our scenes:

Partner 1: ‘Oh look, I’m drinking soda again…’

Partner 2: ‘How did you end up doing that?’

Partner 1 has to come up with a situation on the fly. They have open space to work with, but Partner 2 could have made life easier for them.

Instead: 

Partner 1: ‘Oh look, I’m drinking soda again…’

Partner 2: ‘From my perspective as your lawyer, I’m not sure that’s going to play well in our court appearance tomorrow’

I’m their lawyer, we have a court appearance tomorrow, and drinking soda is not a good idea.

That gives us some structure, but not too much. Whether this is a perfect response I don’t know, but it definitely feels better and more supportive than asking a question. 

Observing / Unfolding

There can be a strange dynamic in improvising being strangely constrained; where the teacher provides a suggestion and participants work off of it. What follows is freestyle, but your partner’s choices then also constrain your options.

This led to a strange tension for me – wanting more freedom, but also wanting to be able to observe.

The session reconfirmed one of my strengths is observing. I like to observe real-world situations, notice something, and respond. It comes much more easily to me (it’s also probably why I like observational comedy).

Having the story unfold randomly within a constrained structure or scenario I couldn’t choose was far more challenging – there wasn’t much to observe; few tropes or human habits to riff off.

Instead, letting it unfold required something different: that ability to think, but not think; being able to step out of being me, into another version of me.

Embrace the ephemeral

Per my interest in observing and noticing, I like to collect. I write notes all the time. In the improv class there’s no time for that – there’s no record of any sort. There’s just the people, the room, the moment. And then it’s gone.

The nature of the improv class is to be ephemeral. A little like a dream, the sketches, scenes, and bits quickly fade away. By the time the door is opened to signal the end of the class they’re almost translucent, and the morning after they’ve almost all disappeared.

Part of me wanted to record them, memorise them, use them. But something told me it was right to leave them just where they were – in the room, in a moment in time. No need to hoard them, just let them be part of the practice, deliberately invisible.

Because that’s even more reason to continue.

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