If you’re a regular improviser, my guess is that there are two elements of the improv universe that keep you coming back over and over.
The first is that it’s fun. Being up onstage helping to create something out of nothing that delights an audience is a pretty spectacular feeling. Not only that, but you are surrounded by kind, hilarious and unique fellow improvisers, whom you quickly build friendships with, spending many nights laughing over drinks while recounting the insane moments of that night’s performance. “I can’t believe we kept bringing back Dr. Fart Sandwich!” you’ll say to me, and I’ll agree: I can’t believe it, either.
The second aspect of improv that has you trudging through bad weather to do a 20 minute set for 5 audience members is this: you want to get better. Beyond the joy of getting laughs and living in the moment, you have a desire to improve your craft and become the sort of performer you look up to. Let’s talk about how to do that. I apologize in advance for doing most of the talking.
In his book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Fortune magazine editor Geoff Colvin theorizes that those who truly excel in any area of life engage in something called purposeful practice. Purposeful practice is just what it sounds like: it’s practice with a specific goal in mind. Using Tiger Woods as an example, Colvin argues that Woods does not just mindlessly hit golf balls for hours on end, hoping he will improve through sheer repetition. He works relentlessly on minute aspects of putting, chipping and driving the ball – often getting worse before he gets better – in order to achieve the ultimate aim of becoming a more well-rounded professional. He’s also doing it to get laid.
And so it goes with improv. If you want to become a better improviser, you need to be able to honestly assess where you’re at, identify what you need to work on, then use your stage time effectively in building up a specific skill. Yes, taking classes can help, but if you are not actively training yourself to understand why some improv choices are stronger than others, you are mostly wasting your time and money. No matter how great your instructor, she can only give you exercises to do and feedback to consider: it’s up to you to internalize what she’s saying.
But here’s the good news: the opportunity to grow as a performer is all around you. If you are fortunate enough to live in or near a city with a large comedy community, you are truly blessed with the possibility of watching some of the best improvisers in the world perform for you. Every night. For free. Rather than simply watching them passively and marveling at their brilliance, look for what they’re doing. Maybe someone plays hilarious original characters, or is brilliant with ‘game of the scene,’ or, even better, can sit in real emotions and be genuinely affected. Add these tools and hone them in shows of your own.
But how do I hone these skills, you ask? Simple: you fail. A lot. You fail spectacularly and brilliantly. You do cringe worthy scenes with a dumbfounded audience that sits in hideous silence. You feel intensely uncomfortable and wish this damn scene would just end already. But you persevere: you’re going to portray this Scottish bartender as realistically as possible, damn it! And you learn through this. And your brain starts to make distinctions. And you grow.
That’s mainly what I had to say, but I’ll leave you with a few additional thoughts on getting better and improv in general.
- If you sign up for an improv class, I beg you: take notes. Six months after the course ends, you will have forgotten 90 percent of what you were taught (I made that percentage up, but you see my point). Review these notes early and often. Internalize them.
- You are an improv free agent. Your improv team is temporary and will soon break up. That is not to devalue the experience, however: use the time you have with your team to learn how to work with performers of varying playing styles. And build lasting friendships, too, of course!
- Want a practical tip on how to become a better improviser right away? Here you go: stop walking into scenes. If you watch enough improv, you’ll notice that walking into scenes is almost always a terrible choice, and is by far the biggest pitfall of intermediate improvisers. Yes, there are some wonderful and hilarious walk-ons that enhance things, but this is usually pulled off by very high caliber players. Want to help out with the scene? Sweep it.
- Replicate real human behavior on stage. Not every audience member will appreciate your super-specific Star Trek: Deep Space Nine references (even if they should, because it was a great show) but everyone can identify with an overworked mom, an emotionally distant dad or a controlling….cousin? Sorry, it’s late.
- Want to know your improv secret weapon? It’s you! Your life experience and personality is unique to you and you alone. My best imitation of you would pale in comparison to the genuine article. Show us who you are and let us into your heart.
- If you can do all this and incorporate Dr. Fart Sandwich you have mastered the art form and can move on to Ultimate Frisbee or something.
Jordan Kennedy is an improviser in Toronto. He’s not the best improviser around, but he’s got a little better over time, so he thought he’d write about it.