I've just completed a five week improv intensive at the iO Theatre in Chicago, learning how to be emotionally engaging (and hopefully funny) in front of an audience whilst making stuff up.
Here are my favourite transferable lessons, useful for life as well as improv. I know this all reads a little preachy. But I'm committing to it nonetheless.
This is the basic cornerstone of improv. On stage, we try to listen to our partner and react to the last thing they said, not continue a pre-existing idea about what the conversation was about or spend the time thinking about a funny line to follow it. Sadly the latter is far too common in real life (anyone who has been on a bad internet date is only oh too familiar with someone talking about themselves for two hours). Interesting conversation is like tennis, where people really wait to see how the ball is coming back at them before they get in position for their next move. (Thanks Greg Hess of Cook County Social Club for the analogy). It makes life far more fun.
2. Follow the fear
In my second week in Chicago, I overcame my fear of losing control and getting hurt as I was picked up by my classmates and lifted high above their heads, then flown around a large warehouse space for several minutes. It felt simultaneously supported, powerful and calming and made me trust them and my body a little bit more. Leaving home and job earlier this year felt a bit like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. But only by stepping into the unknown could I work out what was the next phase of me. Only by following the fear can we experience all that life has to offer.
3. Trust your brain
Our subconscious brains are cleverer than we think; we don't need to undermine or quash our creativity all the time. In improv, we try to play like we did as children before we learnt to tell ourselves we are stupid. And to unlearn some of the self filtering and judgement that we lay on ourselves as we become adults. You'll be surprised at your genius. As the brilliant Andy Carey encouraged us; "the stakes are low, if you say something stupid or make a fool of yourself, nothing happens." Embrace play and celebrate failure.
4. Don't be a dick
"There is no reason anyone ever needs to be a dick in life, and no reason on stage either" announces the brilliant Craig Uhlir. There is no need to be racist, sexist, homophobic or generally make other people feel crap. A little bit of love and respect for the people around you makes improv and life generally nicer. And if people do hurt your feelings - as inevitably happens when people start to speak before they think - tell them why. On the receiving end of this, listen and understand but try not to let it paralyse.
5. Don't shoot people or animals
This isn't a hard and fast rule in improv as a bit of death can sometimes serve a scene, but generally it isn't a great move to kill your scene partner, or shoot the owls who are supportively cooing at the back of the stage. As a rule for life, I'm pretty firm on this one. Put the gun down.
Thanks to the brilliant improv teachers who have inspired with their wisdom these last few weeks; Greg Hess, Tara DeFrancisco, Bill Arnett, Craig Uhlir, Adal Rifai, Andy Carey and Farrell Walsh.