I have fond memories of my first class at the Brave New Workshop Student Union. The teacher was Brian—I saw him as this tall, lanky, goofy guy, but he had an incredible way of putting us at ease. We found out that he’s a teacher in his day job too, so he knew how to manage nervous kids like most of us basically were. I went in with a number of fears, but they were quickly put to rest.
I am Freaking Out!
I’m going to be the old guy! At age 38 when I started, I figured I was going to be completely out of place. I was pleasantly surprised to see people in a range of ages (I was older than many, but definitely not the oldest), backgrounds and goals. Some clearly wanted to go on to be performers. Others were just there to try to face some fears, become better public speakers, or just get out of the house and try something new. Some of those who didn’t think they had any desire to ever get on stage would end up getting sucked in and becoming performers. But the fact was, when we got started a person’s age, background and long-term goals made no difference—it was all about what everyone was bringing to the class.
I’m not quick witted enough! This was a myth that Brian dispelled immediately. You don’t have to be the quickest or the funniest to be a good improviser. “Everybody is an improviser every day,” is one of the things Becky Hauser, Director of Education told me when I was talking to her about writing about improv. And it’s true. Rarely do we know exactly what’s going to happen in our day, but we manage to absorb it and react to it. And that’s what those early improv classes are all about—letting people know it’s not difficult. It’s all a matter of listening and responding.
I’m going to look stupid! One of the amazing things about getting involved in the improv community is the level of trust and support. Many of the early games and activities in the class are about letting go, trusting everyone will support you. And will they ever. One of the first games I remember playing is called, “Everybody Go”. The class stands in a circle, and one person says, “Everybody go…” and makes a noise and does some sort of potentially goofy action. The rest of the group repeats that same noise and action. It’s the first step to realizing that whatever you do within that group, it will be supported and accepted. And nobody has ever died from doing something a little bit goofy in front of a group of people.
Okay, I Got This.
One of the other big lessons is to simply listen. Make sure you hear what’s being said to you before responding. “Yes, and…” is one of the early mantras, meaning that you listen to what your partner is saying, then add more information. In “Newsstand”, one character will walk up to another at the newsstand and ask for an item. The second character will say, “Yes, we have that”, then offer them a second item that’s related to what they ask for. It’s such a simple game, but serves such a huge purpose in asking you to let go of control, listen and help your scene partner.
Those little elements have been the base upon which I’ve built everything else as I took every class I could at Brave New Workshop, then moved over to Huge Theater and took every class I could there, too. I admit to being an improv junkie at this point. I’m not saying I’m great at it…yet. But it’s something I want as part of my life for the foreseeable future. I have a group with whom I’m practicing and occasionally performing, and it’s amazing the magic created on stage with support, acceptance, and listening.
Improv-ing Life Off Stage
But the fact is, those little elements have made a tremendous difference in my everyday life as well. As a somewhat (very) sarcastic individual, the little reminders to support and accept people, and to really, truly listen are incredibly helpful. I still have my bad days with it, just as I have my bad days with it on stage. But in seeing the positive effects practicing support and listening have had, I’m much more apt to use them on a regular basis.
And let’s not forget something as simple as the opportunity to meet and engage with a new group of people. After a couple hours of letting go and trusting a group of people to support my decision to play weird characters like a turtle stranded at the side of a highway, there’s often a trip out for a drink afterwards to get to know the people behind the goofiness. And in my mind, building that community is just as valuable as all the other things I’ve learned from improv.
Here’s to winging it!