The Highs and Lows of Improv

Mia Stubbings

  • OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

As this year is finally coming to an end, I have started to mull over the things that I have done, and, more specifically, the things that I am most proud of. I am a different person to the one who started 2016, and I'm glad to be finishing the year as someone who can look back and be proud, rather than someone who looks back and feels glum at all the opportunities that whizzed by unnoticed. 

I have done a lot of things this year that my teenage self would look at and tremble. And I know this, because I was trembling right before I did them. But I'm trembling no longer, and I shall tell you why.

One of the things that has made me tremble the most this year has been taking part in improv classes. I remember reading Amy Poehler's 'Yes Please', and feeling like she was doing all of the things that I wanted to do. I wanted to play a plethora of different characters, and make people laugh, and be ridiculously silly! I remember thinking 'I want to do this! How do I do this?'

And so my venture into improv began. It started with a bit of Googling, a bit of emailing, and I eventually found a group in Nottingham called MissImp. And along with jams and improv nights and shows of comedy madness, they also did classes. I signed up with trembling hands, and continued to tremble for many weeks after that. 

I hadn't performed in a long time. I dance on stage, but it takes a different kind of confidence to act, and so I was horrifically nervous to begin with. But that was exactly why I had signed up for these classes in the first place, so I powered through. I could remember a time when I used to act and make people laugh, and I remember it being the best feeling in the world. I wanted to feel that feeling once more, and I knew this was the way to do it. 

The class was small; only about seven or eight of us- it got smaller as the weeks went by. I glowed with a sense of pride when my teacher said to me at the last class, 'Of all the people I expected to leave and not come back, it was you'. I have always been one to defy expectations and prove people wrong, and here it was no different.

We were absolutely thrown in at the deep end. We would spend 3 hours every Tuesday night in the basement of a little pub, standing up and making fools of ourselves. Sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was not. I found it hard to begin with, and nerves often made it worse. As the weeks went by, I found that the more relaxed I was, the more my brain could offer suggestions for a scene, rather than freezing up and going completely blank. My brain could relax and offer the first thing that came to it, rather than analysing the idea and wondering whether it would be good enough. 'Say it!' my teacher would yell, 'I can see in your eyes you've just had an idea! Say it!'.

I could feel it when it worked, and it felt glorious. I felt the highs of making people laugh, and discovering that funny voices and characters was my way in. I also felt the lows of going blank and not getting a scene to work like I wanted it to. One week I would walk back to the bus station with a grin on my face. The next I would walk back feeling deflated, and questioning whether I was any good at improv at all. But I'm not one to give up on anything, and that is the whole point of improv. Sometimes scenes work. Great! But sometimes they don't. Still great! Learn from that, and laugh at yourself. That is important. Just keep laughing and keep saying 'Yes... and', and you'll eventually end up creating a scene that you'll still tell people about weeks later. The glory of improv is that you never have to do a bad scene again. It's gone as soon as it finishes, and you are only left with the sting of feeling like you've failed. But the more you do it, the more you learn to ignore that sting, and throw yourself into the next scene instead. 

I started these classes being the last one to volunteer to be in any scene. I finished being the one who would put her hand up and volunteer every time, and I'd throw myself into it with enthusiasm and delight. But most of all, if a scene did flop, I learned to laugh at myself rather than feeling mortified that I'd just failed at something. 

The teachers were kind and supportive, and knew improv like the back of their hand. I would often get reprimanded for approaching the scene as a director rather than a performer, and I like to think this has changed. I think I finally learned to immerse myself into each scene and embody whatever character I was presented with. 

The exercises were fun and informative. You always gained a new skill from each one, and they gave you the tools to approach an improv scene with. From pretending to be an expert and speaking without a plan, to being bold and brave with your choices, to committing emotionally to a scene and to giving your scene partner gifts, rather than brick walls. It was glorious. And I feel victorious because of it. 

My only challenge now is to start going to jams and comedy nights and really start experiencing improv outside of the classroom. Maybe this can be my first challenge for 2017. 

My only response to that is, 'Yes!... And'.

Photo: Members of the Baltimore Improv Group perform. (Theresa Keil / Baltimore Sun)