Life Lessons from Improv 101

When my good friend, Sherrie (no anonymity there, dear girl–you’re getting full credit/blame for this!), asked if I would like to take a class to learn to think on my feet and become more comfortable as a speaker, I jumped on it. Who isn’t up for a little self-improvement? Besides, Sherrie is always fun and spending time with her is a hoot, so why not?

And so, my “yes” came out of my mouth before I fully understood the question.

I went home eager to sign up online—only to discover I had agreed to take a six-week improvisation class. In a theater. And the last “class”—our graduation—would be an actual performance. On stage. In front of real, live people.

Thanks, Sherrie.

On our first night, everyone had to stand, introduce themselves (accompanied always by loud applause—you applaud everything in improv), and share why they were taking the class. Interestingly, most people wanted to do something outside their comfort zones. I was astonished at the number of engineers, accountants, and other “technical” occupations represented. Folks with those types of jobs were yearning to do something “right brained” and creative. Others, like Sherrie and me, wanted to learn to think on their feet and be more comfortable in front of a crowd. Only a few were—or wanted to be—actual performers.

It was scary. And fun … and did I say scary?

The first surprise was that improv has rules. I think improv can rightly be called a discipline (even though everything is made up on the spot) because it does have rules. Our instructor, Brad (a kind and hilariously funny man), was a stickler when it came to their application and had us recite them at the beginning of every class like first graders learning the Pledge of Allegiance.

Rule Number One: Make your partner look good.

No matter who you’re performing with, defer to them, follow their lead. Negation is death to a scene. For instance, if someone limps across the stage and addresses you saying, “Doctor, I think my leg is broken,” you’re a doctor. It doesn’t matter if you thought you’d like to do a scene about a pilot, you are now a doctor and must—absolutely must!—respond as such. If you say, “I’m not a doctor,” you’ve just killed the scene and mortally wounded the other performer. Make your partner look good.

What if I lived every day with that in mind? Instead of constantly critiquing, judging, and try to one-up everyone, what if I find ways to support, encourage, and validate those I come in contact with? What if I put Romans 12:10 into practice … “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor …” [NASB]

The second rule was wrapped up in the simple words, “Yes, and … “

Regardless of what the other performer said, our response was to be “Yes, and … “ Again, no negating their words. Agree and add something. If someone said to me, “Wearing an armadillo as a hat is an interesting choice.” I cannot say, “It’s not an armadillo.” Or “It’s not a hat.” I agree and add. Maybe I could say, “Yes, and I bought it at your mother’s shop.” Whatever response immediately comes to mind, but I must agree and add, expand the statement. (Of course we didn’t have to actually say, “Yes, and …” every time, but the mental inclusion of those words needed to become automatic.)

Hmm. How many times do turn conversation into a debate instead of making it about agreement? Now, I’m not saying I should agree with a statement I know to be incorrect or is against my beliefs, but why must I be so quick to contradict, so quick to say something to try to  prove my intelligence or my depth of character or to impress someone? It’s a habit I need to break.

In improv, agreement is the only rule that cannot be broken. Whenever possible, I just need to agree and add whatever words of compassion and understanding I can. How can two walk together unless they be agreed? (Amos 3:3)

Improv forces you to listen. I cannot listen and plan what I’m going to say while the other person is still speaking. I have to respond solely to what that person says. I cannot “steer” the scene in any direction I choose. I must respect the choices made by others and comment (yes, and …) to whatever they say.

How many times do I half listen to what my friends and family members are saying? I’m so busy coming up with my response that I barely hear what’s being said. I can hardly wait until she stops talking—and too often I don’t wait … I interrupt!—so I can speak. I want my turn while it’s still her turn.

What if I don’t formulate my argument or my clever reply until AFTER my friend says whatever she’s saying? What if I pay attention to her tone, her facial expressions, her body language … actually hear her words, and “always listen to the whole idea in a statement” (another improv rule) and then—only then—respond? How much deeper, more meaningful will my conversations—and my relationships—be?

There were so many other ideas and rules in improv that I can apply to everyday living—perhaps fodder for other posts. I’m told to treat others as if they are artists, poets, and geniuses—and they will be! How wonderful to be part of calling out someone else’s potential.

While nerve-wracking, the graduation “performance” was a blast. Yes, Sherrie and I were nervous, but we pulled it off. We remembered the rules and came out alive, relieved, and richer for the experience.

Thank heavens, I’m not always on a theater stage (or am I?), but I try to remember what I learned in Improv 101 and apply what I can to real life. And who knows? Maybe I’ll let Sherrie talk me into Improv 201 someday.

There’s always more to learn.


Life Lessons from Improv 101 — 8 Comments

  1. I was so proud of you for taking this on, and I was privileged to be in the audience for the final performance. It took guts and you aced it! The insights you gathered from the experience are thought provoking to say the least. Love you!


  2. Oh, how I can relate to your reflections. Thanks for the needed reminder to really listen. And the class sounds like fun. Maybe.

  3. Ev and Sherrie were like pros. I didn’t know the rules, but I can see, now, that they were followed well. I had a blast watching my “well behaved” wife get outside of her “normal” life. I know I’m ready for her to move on with 201.

  4. Love how you applied “the rules” to everyday life. I’m going to give that a try. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Wow Evelyn, that was very interesting. Learning to put others first and make positive remarks can be very hard. Great class for anyone!

  6. Oh, I am so glad you gleaned so much from the experience and chose to pass it on to us! Wish I could have attended the performance – you and Sherrie always lift my spirit!

  7. Sounds fun! For you … not for me. Haha. I would have been petrified. Maybe I can apply the spiritual principles you brought out instead. Thanks for sharing.