I took my first improv class by accident during my sophomore year of high school because it was the only elective left open. While all my friends enjoyed ceramics or photography, I sauntered across campus to the daunting theater classroom that connected to the auditorium. An intricate line of shoes trailed out from the door. Not sure whether or not to follow along, I removed my sneakers and stacked them off to the side. The teacher of the class, Joel, came out as I was doing this. He made a tisk-tisk noise and instructed me to add to the pattern. When I asked him where, he shrugged, smiled and returned back to the classroom. I moved my Reeboks, adding to the random yet intricate pattern with the rest of the shoes, hoping I hadn’t messed anything up.
I don’t remember exactly what happened during that first meeting. All I can truly recall is that I showed up feeling anxious and nervous, but I left feeling light and giddy. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into with improv, but I could tell there was something special about it.
I finished that semester-long elective and found myself drawn to other theater classes throughout high school. I tried out an acting course and then a play, both of which I loved. But it wasn’t until I saw improv groups promoting their auditions during Festifall, a club fair at the University of Michigan, that I was reunited with improv for a second time. Today, it feels like my entire life revolves around it.
Improv: I believe most people have a general idea of what it is, or have at least seen the scene in “22 Jump Street” right before Jonah Hill’s iconic slam poetry performance. Generally speaking, improv is a form of comedic theater that is made up on the spot with no prior planning or scripting. Though it may be an unfamiliar form of comedy to some, I can guarantee that those who have seen a live show whether at college or in a city can confirm that it is hilarious and wildly entertaining. That being said, improv has much more to offer than just a belly laugh on a Saturday night.
Let me introduce you to some basic concepts and rules of improv and show how I’ve been able to apply them to improve my life.
“Yes, and…” I’m sure some have heard this one before. All it means is accepting whatever someone says and then adding onto it. If my scene partner declares that we are on a flying saucer in space, I won’t respond by saying, “No…we’re in a submarine.” That would kill the fun. What I might say is, “Yes, I can’t wait to go to mars for our double date with alien brothers!” Never deny or reject what a scene partner says. Take it and run.
I remember someone in my improv group on campus explaining that we are so lucky that we still get to play like kids do on a playground. Improv is a blank page waiting for an entirely imaginative world to come to life on it. We get to create the rules and characters and storylines. If we want the world to have talking bananas then so be it. Anything and everything goes. The rule of saying “Yes, and” only heightens this ability to be creative because the wild ideas and additions that other people have are truly amazing.
In my everyday life, I am able to build off of what others say because of this “Yes, and” principle, and I love to hear what others have to add to my own ideas. Everything is richer when we collaborate.
Giving a gift: This is like planting a seed in a scene or giving your scene partner something to play with. Maybe it’s congratulating them on their recent engagement, or asking about why they have a squirrel crawling up their arm. Remember, improv is building something extravagant and rich from nothing. Giving gifts is like handing each other little building blocks; it’s a great practice especially when the scene feels like it has hit a wall.
Many people have shared with me that they could never perform because of their stage fright, or because they wouldn’t know what to say. I remember feeling a similar way until I learned that in improv, we are building something from scratch and there are no wrong answers. This principle helped me become more confident in unfamiliar situations in my everyday life and feel less anxious when I am out of my comfort zone.
I used to hate ice breakers on the first day of any new group. I would wrack my mind for something interesting to say, driving myself insane and eventually just blurting out, “I can’t think of any fun facts about myself,” and shrugging. How lame is that? Meanwhile, I thought of twenty different things I could have said but convinced myself they weren’t up to par. The truth is, anything I said would have been the right answer and probably led to some interesting conversation with other people around me.
I recognize that now, and treat whatever I or others decide to say as an opportunity or a gift.
Throwing a wrench: Similar to giving a gift, throwing a wrench is giving something for your partner to play with, except that something might be absurd or shocking. It may throw your partner off a bit, which can be hilarious, but it also gives them lots of room to take the scene somewhere new and unexpected.
I’ve met some of my best friends through improv. I remember standing in a room among strangers at callbacks for the improv group I auditioned for. The thought of having to do improv with these people made me cringe; it was like the fear of the unknown. But something clicked between all of us as soon as we played our first warmup game, and we ended up getting dinner together after just two hours of improv. Improv requires everyone to throw away their inner critic and support each other; there is no room for judgment. Also, what better way is there to bond with people than laughing?
That being said, some of my favorite friends are people who I would have never expected to click with. I decided to go random for my freshman year roommate. I had quite low expectations and knew a big wrench was about to be thrown my way on move-in day. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but a Mt. Joy concert led to a Halloween party which led to telling riddles after a middle-of-the-night fire alarm, and all of a sudden my roommate and I became best friends. I’m glad I didn’t go in fully closed-minded or dodging the wrench because otherwise I would have missed out on an amazing friendship.
I’ve realized that just incorporating improv in small ways can have an impact on people. I interviewed a U-M alum, Mary Lemmer, who is the founder of Improve, a company that applies improv comedy techniques backed by research to people’s professional lives, and chatted about her journey with improv.
Lemmer explained how helpful improv can be in improving people’s lives, especially during times of struggle when we are dealing with loss, challenges at work or in relationships.“We make personal and professional growth fun though, and it works! It’s a wonderful way for people to advance their personal and professional goals.”
Our conversation then steered towards Lemmer’s career path and how improv has changed the course of it. Mary started as an entrepreneur in high school and then completed her undergraduate at the University’s Ross School of Business. Upon graduating, she worked in venture capital. She described working overwhelming hours, feeling super stressed, and experiencing anxiety to the point of fainting and other health ailments.
“I started taking improv classes and it was really the first time I felt relaxed, like truly physically relaxed,” she said. “So I kept doing it. As I kept improvising I realized all these different overlaps and connections between my work as an entrepreneur and investor, improvements to my health and improv. I realized that practicing improv was making me a better improviser and also a better entrepreneur, leader, investor and human.”
These connections that Lemmer made in her head eventually led to her wanting to share with others. She taught workshops and sessions just for fun because she loved improv and saw how impactful it was. Eventually, this led her to start Improve and discover more and more research about the value of improv to our lives.
To conclude our interview, I asked Lemmer why she recommends improv to everyone.
“I believe, and I have seen more and more research and data (suggesting), that improv is a tool for transformation. It is the most fun way to improve your life,” she said. “That is the simplest reason why. ”
To hear more from Lemmer about her journey with improv, you can check out her blog.
So much of what Lemmer shared resonated with me and my own experience doing improv. Improv builds confidence, encourages creativity and collaboration, and bleeds into our personal and professional goals. It’s the most fun way to improve our lives and make us better humans, so say “Yes, and…” give it a try.
Statement Columnist Nicole Winthrop can be reached at email@example.com.