“Everyone can act. Everyone can improvise. Anyone can play in the theatre.”
Viola Spolin, author of Improvisation For The Theater
(NOTE: If you are a more experienced improvisor, this section is for you. If you’re not, don’t worry about it, just come to a class and have a good time. Or, read on and get a sense for what I’m about as a teacher….)
Fundamentally, improvisation is play.
It’s play like the way we played as kids.
And kids don’t need an audience to play.
Kids don’t need to inhabit characters, or make strong acting choices, or find the “game” of the scene.
That’s because kids aren’t trying to get a result.
All they need to do is say YES and AGREE on what they are doing together.
And yet, the art of improvisation was designed to train actors to perform.
And performances require a result: entertaining an audience.
This result can only be consistently obtained by people who are not only strong improvisors, but who are also skillful actors with stage presence, powerful voices, emotional range and control, and other natural gifts.
This is why improv schools so often progress quickly from teaching improv to teaching sketch comedy – because a funny sketch performed by gifted actors is much more reliable entertainment.
But improv is not reliable.
Improv is (beautifully) dangerous.
Sometimes, improvisation leads us into confusing or dark or too-truthful territory.
Sometimes, by improvising well, by making courageous choices, listening, and working together as a team, we still “bomb.”
Good improvisation is not reliably good entertainment.
That’s why the culture of improvisation has evolved, naturally and inevitably, to become more consistently entertaining, and in some improv classes:
- Getting the laugh is often more important than supporting the team.
- Talented performers are allowed to get away with “bad” play.
- Techniques that produce laughter more reliably are valued more than making courageous choices and exploring together.
- Actors compete for attention because there is only so much space on stage.
This cultural evolution has had a very positive and a very negative result.
The positive result is that the improvisor-actors who rise to the top of this competitive environment are AMAZING.
Let’s go directly to the top and look at Tina Fey: she has written hit movies, written hit TV shows, starred in hit movies, starred in hit TV shows, hosted the Emmys and Golden Globes, and written a best-selling book.
And she comes from the same improv culture that produces most of the people on SNL, most late-night talk show hosts (Conan, Colbert, Meyers, Fallon – all improvisors), many of the writers for TV sit-coms, and many of the actors on TV sit-coms.
But there’s a negative result: improv has become more difficult to access for people who do not want to become professional actors.
And there are a LOT of people who are smart, interesting, fun, and creative – and who don’t even think to try improv because it seems like it’s not for them.
Improv has become a club for insiders.
And that is a serious problem.
Because everyone can play.
Of course, the muscles of play are like any other muscle. They atrophy from lack of use.
It’s hard for many adults to play because we have found it necessary to repress our instincts and conform to cultural norms to belong in our social world and succeed at work.
Learning to play as adults, however, doesn’t strip us of our ability to be socially appropriate or successful. Rather, it gives us new and powerful tools for creativity, authenticity, empathy, and leadership.
Studying improvisation helps us learn how to be present, creative, and adaptable.
Improv increases confidence, communication skills, and teamwork.
Perhaps most importantly, improv develops our ability to connect with and understand other people.
These abilities are in everyone and these skills benefit everyone.
That’s why my philosophy of teaching combines the best practices of both worlds: the pure instincts of play that are innate in all of us, and the tools and techniques of professional comedic performance.
Because I understand that you want to be funny and get laughs.
But it’s more important that we learn courage, listening, and teamwork.
It’s more important that we explore and discover together.
The funny will come.