Improv Ain’t just Funny! It’s Deep!
Life Lessons Learned from Improv Comedy Workshop
Friday, the 10th May 2019 was an important day in my life. It was my first ever public performance as part of a group in an Improv Live Comedy Show called “Left in Stitches, to a full house sold out event at HCAC Singapore. I often do things to stretch myself and face my fears like sticking my neck out to speak at a conference, bungee jump or even skydive! However, this is by far the most exhilarating, entertaining and empowering experiences in my life. Today I want to share with you some of the awesome things I learned from this latest adventure- that of joining an Introductory Improv Comedy Workshop at Haque Center of Art and Creativity, Singapore recently.
Improvisation, or improv, is a form of live theatre in which the plot, characters, and dialogue of a made up in the moment. Often improvisers will take a suggestion from the audience or draw on some other source of inspiration to get started.
I had discovered improv during my stint as a corporate trainer and used some of the concepts effectively as icebreakers during the workshops I conducted. However, here was an opportunity for me to put myself in the spotlight and learn the techniques of Improv Comedy from experts and then as a culmination of the workshop, perform on stage in front of a paying crowd for a ticketed event! Now that’s something!
I have never considered myself to be funny or witty and often don’t have any smart ‘retorts’ or ‘comebacks’ to make when faced with ‘those kinds of situations’ in life. So, this was going to be a serious ‘breaking out of your comfort zone’ activity for me.
I found myself sitting in a circle with our Instructor Prescott along with 8-10 other people, each of us had our own unique reasons to join. What began that evening was a fun and joyful ride of ‘just being in the moment’, of ‘letting go’, of ‘accepting the gift’, of ‘reacting to the last thing you saw’, of ‘celebrating failure’ of ‘embracing the unknown’, of ‘going beyond the intellect (Yes, No) and into the Banana Zone’ and much more! As we went along, we found ourselves reflecting a lot on how some of the stuff we were learning was way deep and could be applied to life in general!
Here is an attempt to share some of my learnings with you.
- Yes And – The world of unlimited unexplored opportunities and possibilities. This is a powerful concept that forms the basis of improv. It means that if someone makes an offer or says something in a scene, you need to say ‘Yes’ accept their idea ‘and’ build on it or add to it. Often, our natural tendency is to ‘no but’ and raise objections or reject the idea being offered by others, which kills the scene in improv and so it does in real life as well. Nothing stops a good flow of ideas or conversation in its tracks better than ‘no but’ approach. If on the other hand, we hone our instincts to say ‘Yes’ by accepting other people’s ideas ‘and’ add information to them by offering our suggestions, we allow for unlimited opportunities and possibilities to help the idea grow into something bigger, bolder and better! Moreover, it helps to build mutual trust and respect between the people involved in the scene. By acknowledging other people’s ideas, we give due credit to their capability and contribution. Prescott would insist, support your partner’s idea as if it is the most ‘brilliant’ idea ever! Your partner is a genius! Making your partner look good is a big deal in improv. Such a powerful concept, if applied to life can foster collaboration and connection with others!
- Bring a brick and not a cathedral. This was another lesson that our improv instructor drilled into us. We played a game called ‘storyline’ where each person is supposed to add just one line at a time. While you may have started a story with a fully formed idea of where the scene should go, you are not supposed to stay attached to that and instead, pay attention to what the other person, adds to the story, accept it, respond to just the last thing that they said and build on it. This is powerful learning for me. We enter a conversation with a fully formed idea in our head (a cathedral) that we are attached to and are simply seeking validation from others. We want to hear what we want to hear. Not what the other person wants to say. When that doesn’t agree with our idea, we meet them with resistance. This is what leads to negative outcomes. If on the other hand, we became detached with our ‘cathedral’ and truly become receptive to other’s ideas and build on them in small bits – one brick at a time, the sum total of such collaborative piecing together can be much greater and grander than what is possible to achieve by one person alone.
- Pay heed to the ‘gift’. One of the techniques we learned in improv was called ‘gift circle’. An improviser initiates with miming an object/action as an offer. The other partner is then required to accept the offer as a ‘gift’ and thank him/her by defining the gift, thus building on the scene. The first person is then required to add to the scene by telling why he gave that gift and define a relationship between the gift receiver and giver. There was a constant emphasis throughout the improv classes on accepting other’s offers as gifts and really paying heed to them and building on them to further the scene. This was a powerful lesson indeed for truly ‘listening’ to others instead of just ‘hearing’. We, humans, have a basic need to ‘understand’ and be ‘understood’. We must let go of any ideas and thoughts going on in our head which result in a distracted ‘hearing’ and instead be completely present in the moment with 100% attention to truly listening to the other person. Paying heed to it and responding to it to complete the communication loop, leaving both parties satisfied and engaged.
- Self-awareness and a complete presence. Prescott, our instructor, made us mime a daily activity that we do during one of the workshop sessions. Say prepare your morning breakfast. While we do these tasks with ease in real life, doing them in improv by miming our mundane actions which we generally take for granted, proved to be extremely difficult. It forced us to really pay attention to how we do things, with a level of self-awareness that we probably had not experienced or explored before. I have read many awesome books which talk about similar concepts like ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi or ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle. However, nothing served better than improv in truly helping me experience ‘being present in the moment’ with total commitment and awareness. I began observing myself objectively and learning more about myself. In life too, we go about living our lives without much self-awareness, moving from one task to another, going through the daily grind, ups and downs, mundanely in auto mode. If, however, we brought a heightened sense of self-awareness, objectivity, and presence, we could truly become more active participants in directing the flow or the unfolding of the ‘scenes’ in our lives! We could avoid being prey to many subconscious biases that we operate under to make judgments and decisions that underserve us.
- Celebrate Failure. When I joined the improv workshop, I had trepidations that I won’t have anything funny or comedic to say. Very quickly I learned that it did not matter how clever or witty I was with my lines. What mattered more was being comfortable with what came to my mind, owning it totally and saying it with confidence with total commitment. And if the joke or statement did not land well in a scene, the entire support lent by other improvisers made it super easy to deal with, quickly celebrate the failure, and move on to the next scene! No one is made to feel bad about failing in improv. It is just accepted, celebrated even and we simply move on to the next scene. Many times, a so-called failure just gets embraced nicely into the scene as if it was meant to be a part of the scene anyway. Audience least of all doesn’t even notice the mistake! Failure is an integral part of learning in life. If we as individuals and as a society could treat failure with more respect instead of looking down upon it, the stigma or shame attached to failure which causes us to fear failure would disappear. We would take failure in our stride, quickly recover from it and move on, simply as part of the game of growing up, learning and moving on to the next step.
In the end, I want to say a few words of appreciation and gratitude for our instructor Prescott Gaylord, for helping us learn the principles of improv each week. Those three hours sessions every week were the best times I had during the entire week. I achieved a complete presence in the moment, which I had not achieved even during my attempts at meditation! And I enjoyed meeting wonderful people and connecting with them as human beings really! Just that.