Lessons Improv Taught Me

Stefanie Townsend

Part of the curriculum at the conservatory I am currently attending includes an improv class that everyone is required to take during the summer semester.

When I had read that, I was terrified.

I have been afraid of improv for years. I love watching it. I think being able to think on the spot and create art is beautiful, powerful, and brave. For me, it was taking part in improv that was frightening.

Sometimes, acting classes would involve improv games for warm ups. I would get nervous, tense up and completely forget every word in the English language, how to move and how to speak. I was so worried I would say something and get laughed at and ridiculed. I now know that this fear came from multiple sources: being too self-conscious and a lack of trust in others since I couldn’t predict how they’d react.

Improv taught me to free myself. It taught me to try things even if I think they are absurd. It taught me that you can make mistakes, beautiful ones, and not have to beat yourself up for it. It taught me to be in the moment, to listen and respond to what was given. It taught me that it’s ok to laugh at yourself.

But it also taught me two other huge lessons: to remember that acting is fun and that in reality, people don’t react as poorly as your nerves lead you to believe.

Of course, it is important to note that the audience and the instructor make a world of difference. I am beyond fortunate to have an incredible teacher who encourages us to be creative and have fun, and also challenges us through a variety of games. He creates a safe space and tells us that every idea is gold and to make sure we don’t negate the world of the scene that has been created (also valuable improv lessons). My classmates have become close friends, and we all live within the parameters of accepting what is thrown at us and respecting each other’s ideas.

In improv, there are a variety of styles of acting, I have learned. And improv needs all of them. There are the actors who thrive in more absurd situations, ones that stick to more realistic situations, and ones that combine the two and tie the loose ends to let the scene keep flowing. Knowing that there is a space for different senses of humor and being assured that they are accepted and welcomed really helped me become less worried about what others thought. It allowed me to become more excited to share my ideas and craft with others. The real world taught me that it takes all sorts of people, but improv allowed me to embrace it as much as I do now.

Improv is an incredible art form on its own. The lessons it teaches, however, are invaluable. I would recommend everyone try improv , be it through class or warmups. It might offer the freedom you were looking for.

Photo: Irondale Ensemble Project