Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Ostensibly, improv is theater for non-actors. When I teach a group of beginners I ask two questions. The first one is, “what brought you here today?” Unlike other styles of theater, improv students by in large don’t come to class because they yearn to be a successful artist. Some do. Most don’t. Instead what I hear is:
“I wanted to improve my public speaking.”
“I have anxiety and heard improv was good for that.”
“I thought this would be a cool way to meet people.”
Sometimes I hear a student say, their partner or family made them sign up. Sometimes I discover that two friends made some sort of improv bloodpact and signed-up together. At least, I’m fairly confident it was a bloodpact. Those two friends always have a weird look in their eyes. Regardless, the common reasons are essentially career, self-improvement, and socialization.
The other thing I hear from nearly all my students is “I thought it would be fun.” It often seems like a brainfart at the end of an introduction. Someone will blurt out, “and-I-thought-it-would-be-fun!” while interrupting the next student’s introduction. This always makes me laugh because the intention to have fun, to play, and explore underlies the entire improvisational process! Without fail, when an improv scene tanks it’s because the performers were not having fun.
When I was working at The Charm City Comedy Project, Artistic Director Megan Wills said to me, “Having fun is the most important thing in improv.” At the time, boy did I think she was wrong. I immediately dismissed the idea because as a former theatre kid I knew improv is acting, acting is theater, and theater is serious.
What I failed to understand was that Megan was not saying, “improv isn’t serious.” She was simply saying “improv is fun.” I was one of those 21 year olds that didn't take fun seriously. I didn’t even think they could simultaneously coexist. Like a Jedi I realized, like light and dark, sound and silence, the one does not exist without the other...
The second question I ask my students is “what do you already know about improv?” Just as there are common reasons to study improv, so too are their shared preconceptions. When I ask a group of first timers, the three most common answers are.
You Go With the Flow
You Always Say Yes
Guess what? Those are all spot on. But they need a bit of qualification.