Common stereotypes about what improv is include:
- College kids making fart jokes.
- Your corporate team-building activity (challenged only by the popularity of escape rooms).
- Tina Fey.
Like most stereotypes, these ones hold a kernel of truth while oversimplifying reality. Here is what improvisation means to me after a few years practicing it, studying it, and teaching it:
- It's very similar to meditation: you can only try to do it better, but you won't ever do it right.
- Since you can only do it wrong, you might as well try to have a good time and not worry about being right.
- It's not about yourself.
Improv communities live by mantras. If mantras are taken dogmatically, they will be repeated without having been truly understood or assimilated.
"Avoid questions! Be in the moment! The game of the scene! There are no rules!"
A capable, honest teacher (like the ones at iO, The Annoyance, or The Second City) will guide you through your own understanding of those concepts.
The most widely known improvisational principle is "Yes, And". Viola Spolin, Del Close, Keith Johnstone: in one form or another, "Yes, And" is the foundation of all improv schools. Countless people have shared their thoughts about "Yes, And" better than I am about to. This is just my limited, personal interpretation of it. And it's mostly not about to improv.
"Yes, And" in Everyday Life
- My (our) brain is hard-wired to say "No" to new ideas by default. That's a defensive mechanism that leads to frustration.
- You can train your brain to say "Yes" by default. Mostly by learning to listen and embrace other people's ideas. It makes life better.
- You should actively follow "Yes" with "And": it's your own contribution to keep building on top of the initial idea.
- You can't force people to do what you want.
- You can only help them to achieve what they want.
- Saying "Yes, But..." is just like saying "No" (the ego will try anything).
- My limit to saying "Yes" is physical or psychological damage to me or other human beings.
- Whenever I say "No", I try to be kind, I try to have a good reason, and I try to immediately offer a constructive alternative.
- Sometimes "No" means "Yes". Sometimes it's even more complicated than that.
- And, in the end: "If you're not having fun, you are the asshole." —Susan Messing
Practice those principles for a few years, and you'll start to incorporate this approach at work and in your relationships. You are rewiring your brain.
I interviewed plenty of legendary improvisers on The Hoomanist, like The Second City and iO's David Pasquesi, SNL's Tim Kazurinsky, or the founder of the iO Theater, Charna Halpern. I also had a chat with Kelly Leonard and Anne Libera: both of them work with the University of Chicago to conduct behavioral science studies connected to improvisational techniques. Anne is the a founder of the first ever Comedy Studies higher education program in the US (with Columbia College Chicago).
What I learned: some people approach improv with the illusion that it will make them famous or catapult to SNL (some 0.0000000001% will). Others allow it to become an amazing tool to live a slightly better life—for themselves and for those around them. Learn to see what's the best use of it for yourself, then say "Yes, And".
Tina Fey is actually the reason why I ended up moving to Chicago from Rome. I read about her experience at The Second City on The New Yorker in 2010. So I used my first savings for a month-long trip there to take intensive classes. ↩︎