The unknown can be daunting, but it can also be fantastically fun and thrilling. Let's be honest: improv is certainly a risky endeavor – especially for the introverts out there. It not only involves a wide-eyed expectant audience anticipating a funny scene; it involves no rehearsal, little time to think, and ultimately a whole lot of unpredictable.
That being said, improv can be the most fun you've ever had.
While I have experience in college theatre and some improv, I've only just recently begun taking improv classes at the Rochester Brainery in Rochester NY. I've taken two classes so far, and let me tell you: it's one of the best decisions I've made in a long time.
At first I was quite nervous, as it has been a while since I've performed (much less without any lines or preparation whatsoever). I'm also a perfectionist, which makes the task of building a humorous scene on the spot absolutely terrifying. It was reassuring to learn that most other members in the class were also nervous and inexperienced improvers.
Once we got started, it was like magic. I've learned that creative instinct deserves a whole lot more credit than we give it. I had characters in me I never knew existed, including a pot-smoker, a redneck cow smuggler, a simpleton cellmate, and a stripper that shoots glitter from her derrière as her closing act.
I'd like to share 2 key concepts I've learned about performing improv thus far:
"Yes And" can make or break a scene.
When you're performing a scene with a partner or group, it is important to keep the scene moving forward. It's important to build on what another person has said. Asking a question or saying a "no" statement in response to another character can stifle the storyline. A way to avoid making this mistake is to employ the "Yes, and-" philosophy.
For example, in a two-person exercise, I may kick off the scene with, "I fell off my roof and landed on a porcupine the other day." In response, my partner might say, "Yes, and it looks like you won't be able to go to the party tonight." I in turn say, "I was really looking forward to seeing Johnny." (You don't always have to say "Yes and", but you should be able to insert the two words at the beginning of your statement and have it make sense.) My partner may then say, "Yes, and I'm sure he was looking forward to introducing you to his boyfriend." I then cap off the scene with, "Yes, and now that I think about it... I may be gay as well." (FYI, this dialogue may or may not have actually transpired during one of my classes...)
Game of the Scene
This concept is a little trickier to define. It involves taking something in a scene and repeatedly building upon it so that it becomes a humorous entity of its own. Megan Mack, the improv instructor at the Brainery, best compared the "Game of the Scene" to an I Love Lucy episode.
Lucy and Ethel are working at a candy factory. They are wrapping chocolate candies as they pass by on a conveyor belt (doesn't seem that funny in itself, does it?). Progressively, the conveyor belt starts moving faster and Lucy and Ethel start performing hilarious antics as they try to keep any unwrapped candies from passing by. The "Game of the Scene": the conveyor belt of candies, which becomes a bigger and bigger key element of the scene because it gets progressively faster and faster.
Ultimately what I have learned is that while improv can be scary at the beginning, once you dive in, the creativity just seems to flow right through you (if you let it). I highly recommend giving it a shot.
The glitter-blasting stripper within will thank you.
Photo: Washington Improv Theater