When most people hear the word “improv,” they probably think of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and Wayne Brady’s unreal ability to improvise entire songs, or they might recall classic characters from “Saturday Night Live.”
Typically, these are unlikely places to find valuable life lessons. I mean, no one’s looking to Kristen Wiig’s “Target Lady” for wisdom when you have Meredith Grey spewing out inspirational words between medical emergencies.
But since taking improv classes, I have found that the pillars of improvisational performance are laced with double meaning. And I don’t think you necessarily have to be a student of improv to take note.
Here are the three most important lessons I’ve been able to take away:
Always say yes.
This is the first thing they teach you in improv. It’s all about accepting what’s thrown at you with open arms. Your scene partner may say something you were totally not expecting, but it’s your job to roll with it.
Don't just accept it, commit to it. Suddenly, you find yourself in a scene in which you must construct an aeronautically sound spaceship to save the world from mutant cauliflower attacks. Hell yes.
There is not a doubt in your mind that this is the task in front of you. Maybe you’ll succeed; maybe you will ultimately be defeated by the cauliflower mutants. Either way, you’re all in.
Failure is how you get better.
Making mistakes is the best thing that can happen to you. Don’t get me wrong; it feels sh*tty and no one likes to feel like a total moron, but making mistakes is the best way to learn.
You have to go through those periods of feeling totally defeated in order to improve yourself. It gives you a place to go, and it makes your breakthroughs and successes that much more rewarding.
In improv, you get really good at recognizing when a scene is failing. Those moments are never going to stop happening; even the most experienced improvisers slip up now and then.
But after a while, you acquire tools and skills to help you get out of it. The important thing is being able to acknowledge where you’re going wrong and how to find a way out.
Obviously, improvisational acting is unscripted, so the leap into the unknown can be pretty terrifying. It’s so hard not to walk into a scene with a plan in mind. When walking in front of an audience, the last thing any sane human wants to be is unprepared.
For me, this is probably the thing I struggled with the most at first, and continue to struggle with. The natural instinct to cover your own ass by having jokes or lines or something in your back pocket in case you draw a blank is so hard to tune out. But once you do, it is so liberating.
The other day, one of my teachers said that improv should feel like you’re falling, not necessarily knowing where you’re going, but trusting that you’ll land safely.
This is such an important, valuable way of thinking. We all tend to have these preconceived notions about how our lives should pan out or what we should be achieving by what specific time, but this kind of planning results in too much stress.
In reality, life is totally unpredictable and, honestly, it’s boring to try to predict it anyway. Yes, it’s good to have goals and aspirations, but don’t allow them to bind you to a certain kind of life.
Be open to changing paths, and trust that you’ll land safely wherever you were meant to.
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