in Improvisation

Improv and Life: Lessons Learned in Level I

Here are the two most important lessons I learned during my Level I improv classes.

Do not judge your choices while in a scene — ever.

If you’re into self-improvement and growth, you’re no stranger to embracing criticism and using it as a vehicle to grow. That turned out not to work so well for me with improv.

I remember doing a “Three Line Scene” exercise, where I initiated the scene like this:

Me: “Hey, you forgot the…crumbs…on the floor….”

Her: [Something I forgot because I was instantly judging myself for my choice]

Me: [I mumbled something that made no sense in context]

As soon as the words left my mouth, I was out of the moment and in my head, judging myself for saying something that dumb and boring. I went into evaluation mode, analyzing what I could have done differently to make a better choice.

What I failed to realize is that your choices in a scene are perfect, because you made them. Sure, there are probably more interesting choices than the one I uttered, but ruminating on what those choices might be is best saved for after the scene.

Take constant action and let the lessons seep in via osmosis instead of rote learning.

I’m used to learning information that I then use in my field. For example, I’ll learn a new business strategy and go right ahead applying it after the fact. This is a linear process, where you have to know what to do before you do it.

Improv is different. As the weeks went on, I found myself wondering what I was actually learning — if anything. It seemed like we were just playing around in class. Very rarely were any improv concepts mentioned by our teacher. There was very little guidance as to how to improve.

What there was a lot of was extremely positive praise. It confused me — I’m used to learning a system, and then working that system. And I want negative feedback, not positive! Who cares if I’ve done something well? I want to know what I did poorly, damn it!

After reflecting on this for a while, I realized that what mattered in Level I was simply doing scenes and working exercises. Sure, there are underlying concepts that help you get better at improvising, but they would only make sense in theory if we’d learned them before doing improv.

Our Level I teacher prioritized practice in scenes and exercises over rote learning of concepts. This prepared us for Level II, where we’re:

  • Defining each concept and digging into it
  • Doing specific exercises to strengthen our understanding and application of a concept
  • Begining to tie all of the concepts together into a improvisation framework

Play to the top of your intelligence.

This is a weird one. When doing improv, you’ll be playing characters of all types. Don’t resort to lowest common denominator stereotypes. Don’t make the obvious choice, try to go a bit deeper and search for the honesty in the scene. Try to find how you, AS the character would really respond to your scene partner.