You’re in a job interview, and they just asked you a question you weren’t prepared for. It’s your dream job and you need to nail it. Suddenly, you’re tongue-tied and can’t think of an answer. What do you do?
Say yes and go forward.
This number one rule of improvisation is one every theater student learns very quickly, sometimes from the minute they step into the classroom. They play a variety of games that teach them to think on their feet, loosen their bodies and engage with an audience.
According to Covert Theatre, improv “develops one’s confidence and self acceptance, ability to focus and concentrate, ability to adapt to ever-changing circumstances … awareness of personal responsibility from choices made … [and] sense of fun.”
There are all kinds of different improv techniques and activities. Many of the ones that often come to mind fall into the Short Form category, which “[focuses] on shorter scenes often centered around a theater game,” according to Pan Theater. “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” is made up of games like these.
However, Long Form improv, in which Pan Theater says “improv actors will take a single idea and improvise nonstop for twenty minutes to as long as two hours,” can have a lot more depth and detail. I once saw a performance by the Improvised Shakespeare Company in which they made up an entire fake Shakespeare play based on a single audience suggestion, complete with iambic pentameter. Improv is spontaneous, funny and often really, really difficult.
It isn’t just a show, it’s an exercise in teamwork and quick thinking. This is where the “yes, and” comes into play. If the person starting the scene calls you their grandma, you’re their grandma for the next few minutes. If they say you’ve been married for 12 years, you’ve been married for 12 years, and if you want to get out of it your next choice is to hand them imaginary divorce papers. You can’t change the truth you’re given, but you can make decisions from the information provided.
Improv is also highly collaborative, as all the scene partners have to work together to build their scene on the spot. If one member isn’t playing along, nobody will believe in the scene and there is no point. Actors have to learn how to cede their own decisions about what they think should be happening for the sake of the overall story. If anyone tries to force something to work in improv, it falls flat. It has to happen naturally.
To let things happen naturally, you have to be fully engaged. You have to listen with your body as well as your ears. You have to immediately be able to react to whatever you’re given, without taking the time to think of something “good,” and “good” is subjective anyway. Your whole self has to embody the moment.
In most classes, it’s easy to fall into the routine of attending the lectures, copying the notes, taking the tests and moving on. The workload can get intense, but the pattern is familiar. Improv is a different level of difficulty — it is a full body and mind experience that trains us to sharpen our wits, bring up our pacing and make something cool with other people. It’s practice for life itself.
Also, it’s really fun.
Photo from unsplash.com.