Lessons from Improv

I spent this recent long weekend learning improv. “The Joy of Improv” was an intensive three-day program that introduced seasoned actors and newbies with no stage background (like myself) to the wonderful world of making things up. 

I originally thought that improv is about being funny, witty and chatty. Just like stand up comedy. So I was worried that I wouldn’t be any of these. Such a relief then when we were  told that it was instead rooted in play and all we needed to do was bring our full selves. But I found out that it is so much easier said than done. I straddled between joy and fear trying to get out of my head. That is when the magic happens. 

I didn’t  realize that this deliberate choice to learn how to not think too much would get me to ponder about principles of being that I’ve been ruminating on for the past months. I’d like to share some of these surprising discoveries and seemingly contradicting learnings.

Bring your full self. Then forget about it. 

It is very interesting that improv is not about the self even if it takes inspiration from our individual histories and circumstances. It is shaped by our personal contexts but it does not reside in the ego. It is the well from which we may draw material from but once an offer of the self is made, we let it go as it assumes whatever form through the thread of conversation. 

Generously give so you can create more. 

I’ve always considered myself as a giver but  I did not realize that a generosity of self is something I would struggle with. I tend to keep the self as an entity close to my heart. The compulsion is to hold back and tighten up, resulting in a response that feel forced and contrived. A stance anchored on generosity lends itself to creation and creativity. 

Focus on that which you shouldn’t focus on. 

The idea of hard and soft focus is one of the most striking learnings from the workshop. Getting out of your head, avoiding the over fixation on how things should be is quite difficult. We are typically told to have our eye on the objective. But only when we shift our gaze and attention on another can we allow our subsconscious to drive our performance in accordance with the process and training we undertook. Soft focus on what we ought to do and hard focus on an action that we can do over and over, true in improv as well as in sports and even life in general.

Say yes and just jump in. 

The act of saying yes is a permission bestowed on another to work with and through you.  The yes is a leap by itself but what happens after you utter it is not entirely up to you. A bigger jump is necessary. In improv, where you will be thrust in a situation to step in to save another from a loss of words, I oscillate between the desire to relieve him from his uneasiness and the tendency to hold back for self preservation. I’d like to save someone from their discomfort but doing so will take me right smack at the center of vulnerability. No other way to get past this than by saying yes over and over again. 

Let go to have rhythm. 

Improv is an exercise of letting go. Ridding one’s self from old notions, set ways, tried and tested tendencies, automatic crutches and accepted norms. It is an act of allowing, a permission to just be at that exact moment. Only when we shake these off and tune in to what is here and now will we find our beat and that of another. 

Movement takes you out of your head, driving meaningful thought. 

I was told to move and act first before thinking, counterintuitive to what we were taught all our lives. But it was in doing so that I got to unlock quick insights that were on point, perfect for that exact moment. Perhaps it is the subconscious at work here and movement is but a trigger to get it to flow freely. I like it but it honestly takes some getting used to. 

Embrace your physicality and sensuality. 

I’ve always known that I am a physical and sensual person  and this was further validated in improv. I was told to embrace it further so I can use it to find and tell my story. I’m beginning to understand why and keeping at it gives my reality increased clarity and resonance. This is one of my richest wellsprings that I can tap wholeheartedly. 

Improv has been good for me and I can see myself going back to its principles again and again. 

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