Lessons Learned From Improv Comedy

by: April Durrett

just for you by April Durrett Lessons Learned From Improv Comedy Enhance your life by using principles from improvisational performance. H Have you ever watched in awe as improv comedians made up hilarious scenes in TV shows like Drew Carey's Whose Line Is It Anyway? or in live theater? In improvisational ("improv") comedy, performers get suggestions from the audience and then create a scene together using these suggestions without rehearsal or scripting. How can they invent a scene out of thin air? By following certain basic principles. While improv comedy is a marvel to watch, the principles behind it can apply to your life, whether you're a performer or not. You can use them to get along better with friends, family and coworkers and to make life more fun. Principle #1: Say, "Yes, and . . . " A key building block of improv performance is to agree with whatever premise your partner has created and forward the action. "For an improv performer, `Yes, and . . .' means joyously embracing whatever suggestion the audience gives you and whatever your partner on stage offers you," says Jacquie Lowell, MEd, who has taught improvisational comedy classes and creativity workshops for 30 years and has directed numerous improv troupes in San Diego, including Out on a Whim, Creative Urges and Mission Improvible. "You take on their ideas enthusiastically and add specific, colorful, image-rich information to them. Then your partner does the same, and a scene develops." Application for Your Life. Saying,"Yes, and . . . " to opportunities that arise can create a more exciting life full of interesting possibilities and help you be someone other people want to be with because you are supporting their ideas. Rather than saying, "No, but . . ." when your colleague or partner suggests something you don't like, see what happens if you say,"Yes," instead. "The more I use `Yes, and . . ." in daily life, the more I recognize the beauty and power of it," says Lowell. "For example, if I were a fitness instructor and my supervisor stormed up to me with a critical `Jacquie, I can't believe you wore pants with holes in them to teach step class yesterday,' I could choose to use a `Yes, and . . .' attitude rather than getting defensive. I might reply, `Yes, I'm experimenting with a new subliminal message for the gym: You don't have to be super-rich or perfect to work out here.' The point is not to duck the issue, but to embrace what's said and meet the attack with humor to defuse the situation. Then you can calmly discuss the issue." Joe Sweeney, personal trainer, speaker and author of the book I Know I Should Exercise, But: 7 Steps to Removing Your "But" From Exercise (Pacific Valley Press 1998), agrees that lessons he learned in improv comedy classes have been helpful in his work. He finds that the mental flexibility he developed helps him be more flexible as a speaker. "When I speak before a group, I always have an outline of my speech in my head, but I . . . improvise when the opportunity arises. Audiences love it when you interact with them [spontaneously], because it shows that you're not giving a canned speech. When I speak on health and fitness, I encourage audiences to take healthy snacks with them when they drive. Then I ask what they would do if they got hungry in their cars yet didn't have any snacks. One time someone said he'd go to Starbucks, and I replied, `Yes, and you would order a muffin this big [I gestured with my hands really far apart], which would require two store employees to help you to carry it out to your car.' That spontaneous comment got a great response from the group." February 2007 IDEA Fitness Journal Principle #2: Be in the Moment In improv performance, you need to be spontaneous and in the present to be successful. Because you don't know and can't control what your partner on stage is going to say, it's useless to preplan a scene in your head. If you do, you'll have to revise it anyway, because you must deal with the information and actions your partner presents. Staying in the moment helps performers be more playful. Application for Your Life. Being truly present in the here and now and being receptive to whatever happens can build confidence in your ability to deal with life's challenges. Skill at thinking on your feet can help you, whether you're dealing with an unexpected demand from your supervisor, a change of plans from a friend or the news that a client has hurt his hand the day before his session and now needs different exercises from the ones you'd planned. Rita Mooney, yoga instructor at A Gentle Way Yoga Studio in La Mesa, California, has taken improv comedy classes for years and performed with several troupes. "I'm grateful for my background in improvisation, which helps me feel comfortable and confident as a teacher leading a class. The easy approach of being present with students and perhaps even silly sometimes helps create an atmosphere of trust [in which students are willing] to experience the class with me." Sweeney's background in improv and the lightheartedness it engendered in him has likewise helped him as a personal trainer. "Many people who hire personal trainers could exercise on their own, but they don't because they don't enjoy physical activity. If, as a personal trainer, you can create a fun, playful environment, you can get people to work out regularly with- out boredom, because they are having a good time. At my first session with a particular client, I noticed his playful spirit, and from that moment I always encouraged his mischievous behavior because it filled our sessions with fun. We frequently bantered back and forth using puns." Principle #3: Make Your Partner Look Good Improv comedy is a team sport, notes Lowell. "It's important to listen to and support your partner. You need to value your partner's ideas--even if they aren't what you expect. To be successful on stage and to be a person other players want to perform with, you must learn to be an effective listener." Application for Your Life. Trying to focus the audience's attention on yourself to the detriment of the scene or your partner is taboo in improv. Supportive collaboration is prized. If you can adopt the practice in your own life of working to bolster your co-workers, partners and friends, think what positive energy and amazing results you'll create! You will establish a powerful sense of intimacy and trust. Mooney, like Lowell, notes that "being skilled at improv comedy is really about being a good listener. For me this has been valuable in how I talk with my students and determine what is going on with them physically and emotionally. Then I can create the right class for the students who show up." a plane's propeller, the rungs of a ladder or the hands of a clock). You can use that same principle of looking beyond the obvious to generate ideas for solving problems at home or work," says Lowell. "A good-natured willingness to create multiple options is useful in facing any roadblock life throws you." Divergent thinking can help you weather tough situations."Improv teaches you to think funny," says Sweeney. "The ability to see humor in all areas of your life can help you cope with stress. In 1999, when my doctor told me I had a malignant tumor, the first thought that popped into my mind was that if I were to die at the relatively young age of 50, my book sales would probably increase!" resources Like to learn more about improv comedy and find classes or shows in your area? Check out these resources:

IDEA Fitness Journal , Volume 4, Issue 2

© 2007 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

April Durrett IDEA Author/Presenter

April Durrett is a contributing editor for IDEA Fitness Journal.