Life Lessons From the School of Improv

Improv is often perceived as a form of comedic theater for those rare people who are naturally funny and quick-witted and born entertainers. Contrary to this perception, some of the best improvisers are introverted, more deliberate in their speech and have never performed prior to the improv stage. Why? Hard work and commitment to the rules of improv. Yes – there are rules, and a lot of them. Different schools and structures have their own variations and interpretations, but essentially all forms share the same guiding principals to what makes good improv work. 

When I began my improv journey about 5 years ago, I thought based on my training as an actor and regular performer in the Boston theater scene, I would be at the head of the class (humble, I know). This was not exactly the case. Sure it helped a bit, but it only took me so far. As I continued my training throughout the following year, understanding and applying the rules of improv provided insights into some of my core behavioral tendencies. This understanding has extended far beyond improv, helping me to live a more centered, happy, connected and fulfilled life. 

Here are just a few of my favorite lessons learned along the way (and still working on!). Note: I intentionally left out the (fairly obvious) connections to life as you can decide how it applies.

Listen (like really listen)

“Yes and” is always credited as the most important rule of improv (where you accept what your partner gives you and add to it – never being negative, or saying “no”), but for me the most important rule is listening. Good improvisers may not be the funniest or the most clever, they just listen better. When I started out, I was much more focused on what I was doing and what my next response should be, versus actively listening to my scene partner. And because of that, my responses were unauthentic and I often missed key details of the scene. Instead, I needed to learn to just listen and absorb what my scene partners were giving me. This allowed me to react to and build off of what they actually said, resulting in better collaboration and better ideas.   

Your main responsibility is to support

Improv teaches you that by focusing on making your partner look good (above yourself), you improve the scene and, as a direct result, you end up looking better. You might have a brilliant idea, but it never ends up being memorable if the entire scene doesn’t work. Monopolizing the stage always falls flat. Generosity and support for those around you gets noticed a lot more. 

Let go of your own agenda

My “type A” tendencies definitely were revealed when I first started practicing improv as I would often find myself trying to plot things out in my head during the scene (note – wasn’t actively listening). I was too focused on trying to figure out how the scene could end up or how to help make sense of the many sporadic characters and storylines that were all taking place. I thought this would help carry the scene forward. However, what I needed to do was let go and let it happen. If the circumstances don’t fully align with your idea and you resist that change, you're dead in the water. The key is to focus on what you can control, allow things to evolve, and just make choices. And you end up exerting more influence overall - plus it takes the stress off and is more fun.

Play at the top of your intelligence

This is another critical improv rule, and is one of the hardest for me. It is an ongoing battle on stage, but it is also one of the most interesting and motivating things I learned. Many have different interpretations of this rule, but essentially it’s about making choices that are at the height of one’s intelligence. Many (myself included) tend to dumb themselves down when they are on stage, because they perceive broad, obvious choices to be funnier or they get nervous and panic. I cringe when I think of how many times I’ve played the ditzy or helplessly clueless girl. It was a safety net and a bad one. But those that tap into their intelligence and life experiences create much more interesting and honest responses. For me it’s also a reminder to continue to seek knowledge (more great content on stage) and play to my full potential.

Don’t try to be funny

Just don’t. Just be yourself. I’ll only elaborate slightly: When you try to be funny or make choices that you think will get a laugh, you’re not being genuine. Your audience is smarter than you think.