3 Important Lessons I’ve Learned From Taking Improv Classes

People who know me well know that I have a sense of humor, but I don’t think anyone has ever expected me to be a performer. Sure, in high school I was in band, colorguard, and choir, but I was never a person who thrived in the spotlight. I’m not exactly shy, but being an introvert, I really enjoy keeping to myself.

Last year, my friend Monica was getting married, and part of her bachelorette festivities included – GASP – a private three-hour improv class at The Hideout!

I’ll be honest and say that I absolutely DREADED the idea. Of course, I would’ve never told my friend that at the time, but I was so nervous and filled with anxiety! I was scared to be around a group of ladies I had just met, much less embarrass myself with my pathetic “acting” skills. However, the experience turned out to be fun and even life changing! The first hour and a half was a bunch of icebreakers with plenty of opportunities to embarrass myself. By the end, I got the nerves out of my system, and I was volunteering for scenes! I really surprised myself with how much I ended up enjoying the class, and almost a year later I finally worked up the nerve to sign up for The Hideout’s Level 1 class.

So What Is Improv?
Improv is a style of theatre where everything is made up on the spot. There’s no plot, story, characters, or dialogue that are pre-written. There are many styles of improv. Some may have a specific genre or theme beforehand, but everything else is created in the moment. Sometimes it’s comedic. Other times it’s dramatic.

Most theatres will offer 6 levels of classes, teaching their own style of improv. At The Hideout, Levels 1-3 are about having fun and learning the basics, and Levels 4-6 are for aspiring performers who really want to learn the art and workshop their skills. As of this post, I’ve completed Levels 1-4, and I have no regrets so far. In fact, I’ve seen improvement in my personal life and professional life, due in part to the following improv rules that are oh-so-applicable to everything:

Yes And.
If you’re unfamiliar with improv, the term “yes and” refers to accepting an offer and expanding on it. For example, a performer turns to you and says, “Grandma, I hope you’re not thinking of going out in that gorilla suit!” In improv, we do not want to deny the offer. We accept the offer (Yes), then expand on it (And). Denying would look something like this:

–Grandma, I hope you’re not thinking of going out in that gorilla suit!
–I’m not your grandmother, and I’m definitely not wearing a gorilla suit!

Accepting the offer would look something like this:

–Grandma, I hope you’re not thinking of going out in that gorilla suit!
–I can go to a quinceañera dressed anyway I want to, Jimmy!

See the difference? The former is a big fat rejection of the premise while the latter establishes a relationship between a stubborn grandmother and her embarrassed grandson, and they are getting ready to attend a quinceañera.

Now, in real life, we probably don’t want to “Yes And” everything, but in class, we did a lot of exercises where we would literally reply with “Yes, and –”, and it turns out that is pretty difficult. I found myself saying “Yes, but –” many times, and it got me thinking about my own life. Improv is very collaborative, and it made more aware of how I interact with others, especially at work. In some ways, I say no to a lot of things, and that’s not productive when it comes to working in teams. In other ways, I say yes, but don’t add any value. It made me feel empowered and want to contribute more, always wanting to move forward. That’s a great skill to have, especially in a team setting.

Be Committed.
Once you “Yes And” something, stick with it! Don’t backtrack or change the scene because you think you’re doing something wrong. Commit to the scene and keep it moving forward. If it’s going badly, the director will call scene or someone will come in to add more color, but don’t regret anything. If I am a mail-order Russian bride, I better stay in character, even if my Russian accent sucks, and all I say is “Vodka!” over and over again.

“Be committed” is probably the rule I think about the most because it is personally very challenging for me. I have a tendency to doubt myself and get in my own head. I also tend to hold myself back because of fear. In improv class, I don’t want to be the person who ruins a scene, so that’s great motivation to be committed. However, in real life, there is no scene. It’s all just real life with real deadlines and real consequences. If I bring up an idea, I try to stick with it to the end. Sure, there are times when abandoning an idea is best, but for the most part, staying committed is worth it and very rewarding.

It’s OK to Fail.
This one is HUGE! I’m naturally very competitive (classic middle child syndrome) and have perfectionist tendencies, so my fear of being embarrassed goes hand-in-hand with that kind of thinking. However, improv has helped me embrace failure. Failure is almost even encouraged. We have a cute little failure bow and everything. The cool thing about improv is if you’re bombing, the moment will be over soon by either the director ending the scene, or one of your troupe members will bail you out. And sometimes the failures are hilarious, too. We play games to warm up before starting scenes, and often they are pretty impossible to master, which leads to pretty funny “mistakes”.

Failing over and over again in class is helping me getting over that fear. Failure is necessary in life. We should learn from failures and then move on. Sometimes failures suck really bad, and other times we can laugh them off. However, it’s important to realize that failures are just moments in our lives, not what our lives are. I refuse to let a failure define my life and keep me down, so I’m trying to learn how to fail gracefully, learn from that mistake, and then keep going. It’ll probably take a lifetime to master, but at least I’m going in the right direction.

Is Improv For Me?
And the answer is yes! I strongly believe that everyone needs to take an improv class, even if it’s just a one-time workshop. Improv is a great way to learn how to feel comfortable in your own skin and be in the moment. You don’t have to be a comedy nerd to enjoy it. In fact, there are plenty of people I know who took it just to meet people and have fun. (I’m probably the biggest comedy nerd in my class, always talking about different stand-up comedians or funny sketches, and most of the time no one knows what I’m talking about. And that’s fine too.) I could probably write a whole other post on why you should take a class, but I’ll leave that for another time.

If you’re curious and wondering whether you should join a Level 1 class, sign up for a free class at your local theatre. It’s a great way to test the waters and see if 1.) it’s your improv style and 2.) you want to explore the art form even further.

If there aren’t any classes in your area, you can always visit a theatre for a workshop on your next trip to the big city! Austin has plenty of free classes offered all the time, and I’m sure other large cities offer free classes, too.

Here’s an awesome video of UCB’s ASSSSCAT to get a taste of what improv is. Keep in mind that this is a specific style of improv, and every theatre is different. Also, these are professional improvisers, some of the best out there, so don’t expect to do this kind of stuff on day 1 of your class.

Have you ever taken an improv class? How did it affect your personal and/or professional life? Share your story in the comments below!