When I decided to sign up for Improv classes, I couldn't help getting ahead of myself. Dreams of immediate success began pumping up my ego and expectations. I would walk in, wow everyone and advance multiple levels. Our first show would leave me with an absurd abundance of high fives and laughs, and I would be showered in Gatorade at the end. I might even become famous.
Then I signed up with a group of co-workers for classes at The Improv Shop.
The realization of my vulnerability began to set in. Not only would I be on stage in front of actual humans, I couldn't blame poor writing or someone else if I failed. I became terrified that I would not be showered in high fives and post-show "well dones," and that my clothes would remain free of the slightest trace of Gatorade. My scenes would be greeted with skepticism, or worse yet, silence. The crowd I pictured turned from an energetic group to an angry mob ready to rush the stage.
But as the class has progressed, I'm realizing it's not always about the results, which when measured in laughs or head-nods can be particularly harrowing. It's not whether we act out the funniest scene or can be the most convincing or twisted character, but rather the process that is often most important. Improv requires a constant give and take with those around you, and it's imperative to get out of your head, stop over-thinking, and go for it.
Perhaps the most important guide we use is to get out of our head by automatically saying "yes and," agreeing with whatever line or action was presented to us, and adding to it however we can. In doing so, we constantly build toward something that is better than what we started with, hoping to create a scene from an obscure suggestion designed to let us take it any direction we choose. The ambiguity can be daunting, but when done well, can lead to truly amazing scenes.
Most of the scenes draw laughs from the rest of the group, though some do not. Some characters are difficult to play and draw from (I once played a smooth-talking body building fireman. I have no experience being either a smooth-talker or a body builder). It's typically apparent while on stage if the scene will get laughs or fall flat. When a scene doesn't take off, rather than simply being frustrated we ask questions about where we went wrong, and do it again.
The reward for following the steps our teachers have outlined is simple: the scene works, the characters are believable and we create an emotional connection with the audience. We exit the stage knowing that we embraced the ambiguity, the uncertainty, and the fear of messing up. Being involved in a scene that works is exhilarating. The results just seem to happen when everyone trusts in a process and works on it as a team.
And who knows, maybe by the end I'll have to wash some Gatorade out of my clothes. But I shouldn't get a head of myself.