This is another excellent guest post from my friend Victor Kung (check out his first guest post here), in which he talks about his experiences and lessons learned from taking improv.
I actually took an improv class during my senior year at USC and will get around to writing about my own personal experiences at some point, but in the mean time, Victor does a great job explaining what we can learn from improv and apply to other areas of our lives.
Many of the points he makes in this post mirror ideas I’ve written about before (like getting comfortable with being uncomfortable), and I think you’ll get a lot out of it.
On to you, Victor!
I Never Planned on Taking an Improv Class
The thought had actually never crossed my mind. I had signed up for a Public Speaking at Second City Chicago, the city’s largest improv theater.
But when I arrived for my class orientation, I found out that I had enrolled in Second City Toronto.
The staff member, seeing the expression on my face, suggested that I enroll in any available class at the Chicago branch. I agreed, not wanting to waste the $200 registration fee I spent.
And thus, my improv adventure began.
Improv is Scary and Rewarding at the Same Time
Improvisation, or improv, is a form of live theater in which the plot, characters, and dialogue of a game, scene or story are made up in the moment.
I still remember walking into my first improv class. The classroom was full of strangers. We all sat down in chairs lined up against the perimeter of the room.
The room was silent. But you could sense the anxiety within each person.
The next 10 months were among the most terrifying, yet exhilarating moments in my life.
Every class, we confronted our fears by putting ourselves in the spotlight.
My Improv C class at The Second City
We had to work together as improvisers to create relationships, environments, situations, and conflicts in our improvised scenes.
On top of that, we had the honor (and terror) of having to perform in front of paying audiences on stage.
7 Life Lessons I Learned from My Improv Classes
Improv is more than just going up on stage and being funny.
It’s about working together, listening to each other, and creating a story together.
It’s about making choices, not being afraid to take the lead, and knowing when it’s your turn to follow.
It’s about creating amazing friendships and fun memories.
The biggest surprise was how the lessons I learned in improv applied to other areas of my own life. Without further ado, I want to share with you the 7 most important lessons I learned:
1. Be More Accepting (Yes, and…)
One of the core tenets of improv is “Yes, and…”.
It states that a scene member should accept what another participant has stated (the “yes”) and then expand on that line of thinking (the “and”).
The “Yes” part encourages you to accept other people’s ideas, no matter how ridiculous they may sound. By saying yes, you accept the reality created by your partner. In doing so, you can begin the collaborative process of creating a scene.
At that point, you are then expected to add more information into the narrative. Hence, the phrase “Yes, and…”.
By accepting your partner’s ideas, you establish trust and mutual respect. This is essential to the success of a scene. Saying “no” will kill the scene and damage your relationship with your partner.
The concept of “Yes, and…” applies to real world situations when you are collaborating with others.
Instead of saying no to someone else, try to understand where they’re coming from. Try to build on their ideas and then offer suggestions.
It is also an important reminder that your idea isn’t always the best one. Many of the best scenes I was in have come from the wackiest ideas that my scene partners put forward.
2. Fully Commit to Whatever You Decide to Do
When it comes to improv scenes, you need to be fully committed. Nothing is more awkward than to watch than a scene where participants aren’t all in.
Once you have said or established something in your scene, you need to stand by it, no matter how dumb it was. Cowboys on Mars? That’ll work. Digging a grave for your sister’s unborn child just in case things go wrong? Totally cool.
Here’s the secret:
If you commit to everything in a scene, the audience won’t even notice if you’ve made a mistake. They’ll think it was just part of the scene!
This is because the scene belongs to you and your fellow scene members. It’s your reality and in your world, things are whatever you want to make of it.
In life, we often second-guess our choices and seek validation to rationalize our decisions.
By taking ownership and committing to our choices, we can focus on looking forward instead of backward.
We can say, “I’m going to make this work” instead of “Did I make a mistake?”
3. Look at Failure as a Way of Learning
The biggest fears people have when starting improv is the fear of failure. The fear of making a fool out of yourself on stage in front of other people.
The truth is that messing up is part of the process and is often times just as funny as nailing a scene.
The difference between improvisers and normal people is how they respond to failure.
In improv, most scenes last for around a minute or less. If a scene doesn’t go particularly well, there’s always the next scene.
For most people, the fear of failure is so great that they don’t even have the courage to take action.
These individuals believe that inaction is the same as trying something and messing up. Do not make that mistake of thinking that.
[Note from Stefano: It is always better to have tried and failed… than to have never tried at all. I can live with the pain of failure. What I can’t live with, is the pain of regret.]
4. Get Comfortable With the Uncomfortable Through Repetition
When I started improv classes, I remember how afraid I was to take part and to put myself in the spotlight. My fear always came with the physical sensation of having butterflies in my stomach.
Let’s fast forward to my final few weeks of improv classes… I still experienced the same physical sensations, but I no longer felt fearful. I felt an adrenaline rush that excited and empowered me.
What do I mean by this?
When I first started improv, I felt uncomfortable because I was not used to being on the spot and improvising. But through countless hours of repetition through each class, I was no longer afraid.
Because of my training, I no longer interpreted the butterflies in my stomach as fear. I was able to take the same physical sensation and draw strength from it.
[Note from Stefano: Instead of allowing anxiety to prevent you from taking action, learn to use it as a TRIGGER to take action.]
In real life, it’s the same thing with anything that you’re not used to. The first time will be uncomfortable. And so will the second and third time. But if you stick with it, you will slowly adapt and get used to it.
The unfamiliar will become the familiar.
5. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
The best improvisers immerse themselves completely in a scene. It is as if they are in their own world. It’s unbelievable how they are able to let go of themselves like children.
I remember watching Hitch*Cocktails at The Annoyance Theater. The premise is simple…
The audience provides a suggestion and the participants create an improvised thriller in the style of Alfred Hitchcock.
At the same time, there is an open bar on the stage. In each scene, the participants must take a drink.
The show was eye-opening because I felt like I was just watching the cast members have fun. They would come up with the wackiest ideas to fuck with one another.
They would pour huge amounts of alcohol to get each other drunk. It was a ton of fun watching them have so much fun.
Improv is a great reminder to not take yourself so seriously. The best things in life are fun moments where you can let yourself go and not give a damn.
6. Just Go With the Flow (Instead of Trying to Plan Everything)
I remember an exercise we did in one of my first classes. Everyone lined up in a circle. The premise was simple: you go around the circle and say your name. Here’s the catch:
- You have to say a descriptive word in front of your name to create a phrase (for me, it would be “Victorious Victor”)
- You have to act out the phrase while saying it
- The next person has to repeat the phrase and act everything out for each person before him or her
Needless to say, this didn’t go well. The reason was because everyone was so nervous that they were only thinking about what they were going to do.
In a scene, if you already plan on what you want to happen, you will miss out on important information from others.
It is far more important to listen to what others are saying so you can react honestly in real-time.
This thought process has applications to real life. It’s a helpful reminder to listen when interacting with other people. It’s also useful for dealing with unexpected scenarios, where you can choose to go with the flow or to be stubborn in your ways.
7. Acknowledge that Everyone Brings Something Unique to the Table
One thing you notice when you start doing improv is that each person is unique.
As a member of your ensemble, your job is to help each person bring out their personality. I remember in my Improv A (the beginner level class), there was a nineteen-year-old kid named Ryan. He was super shy and quiet in class so nobody knew him very well.
A few weeks into the course, something clicked within him. He became a lot more outgoing. That’s not all. We soon realized that he was the funniest person in the entire class.
His sarcastic and dry humor, combined with his quiet personality made for a hilarious combination. The thing is, Ryan was just being himself. And we ended up finding him funny for that reason.
My Second City Improv Level A Class – April 2015
But Ryan was only able to come out of his shell because of the friendly environment we created in our ensemble. We had Thursday night classes, so we would go out for dinner and drinks afterward to get to know everyone better.
Moral of the story is that in any team environment, try and help others succeed. The more successful each person is, the more successful you will be as a collective.
Long Story Short, Take an Improv Class
Taking an improv class was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
It always makes me chuckle when I think of how my mistake became one of my biggest blessings in disguise. Improv has taught me to embrace failure, be a better listener, live in the present, go with the flow and more.
If you have the opportunity to take an improv class, you should. I have never done something where I have had so much fun, made so many friends and laughed so hard. If you’re still unsure, start off by checking out a show. Trust me, it’s well worth it.
[Note from Stefano: Agreed!!]
Until next time!
Victor runs The Remote Lifestyle, where he teaches you step-by-step how you can become a successful digital nomad. He quit his job in February 2016 to become a freelancer. Now he runs his own web agency and travels around the world.