“Come stand in a circle,” said the young woman with curly red hair to a group of nervous adults.
Twelve folks moved away from the brick walls, shuffling over to the brown flecked carpet and planted their feet under their shoulders as instructed.
“I’m so glad you’re here!” the teacher enthusiastically proclaimed. “Over the next eight weeks you’re going to get to know one another, learn something new, and laugh a lot. Let’s start by introducing ourselves. Please share your name and where you work, why you are here, and an adjective that describes your personality.”
I stood anchored in my spot and wrung my wrists in front my body, nervously waiting my turn. A few brave people started us off. We made mental note of their adjectives. Then it was my turn.
“I’m Katie, I work in consulting, and I’m here because I promised myself I’d take an improv class before I turned 30. Well I turned 30, I hadn’t taken the class, and so here I am.”
People nodded hello, and stayed silent, waiting for my adjective.
“Oh, right, an adjective. Creative — Creative Katie” I stammered.
Here’s a creative use of consonants. There aren’t many great adjectives that start with “K”.
Introductions continued, palms kept sweating, and our teacher began breaking down our walls as we played games to introduce us to the tricks of the improv trade.
As our class progresses week by week, I’m learning the very loose rules that guide our games and acting. I’m also learning the lessons of improv as they extend out of community theater and into my life.
Lesson One: You’ve got to say yes
Actors always say yes to the information presented to you. You must say yes to absurd scenes your fellow actors create. Denial shuts down a scene and stops creativity in its steps.
Rule #1 of Improv — Always Say Yes
In my life, I’m pretty good at saying no, because…
No, because I feel I’m not ready yet.
No, because I’m not qualified.
No, because I’m shy, unsure, or afraid.
No, because someone I once know may be there too and may actually see me.
In improv, I have to cut through all of these no’s and show up anyway. The result is hilarious and fun. I catch myself smiling and realize for a brief second, I’m rolling with it. Saying yes has its rewards.
Lesson # 2- Contribute with Abandon
Preparation and plans have their place and I spend much of my professional day coordinating for others. My introverted, cautious self hates being caught off guard or unprepared.
In improv, you can’t prepare! You step in to the circle, say yes and spit out whatever comes to mind next. There’s no time to plan, tweak or perfect. You have to contribute or the scene dies. You must contribute with abandon.
When I spend too much time fixating on perfect, I miss out on opportunities to roll with it and jump right in. Improv is teaching me to trust my thoughts and contributions are valuable even without cautious calculation.
Lesson # 3 — The importance of play
As adults, we lose our imagination and replace it with insecurity, perfectionism, and fear of rejection or the need to be right.
Each week, our class starts off with silly exercises inviting us to step out of our polished selves and into a state of play. We sing song lyrics, we shake our arms and legs in rhythm, we scream nonsense words while others chant and clap.
And each week, I feel ridiculous.
Then I start to look around at my classmates and laugh. It is freeing moving your limbs in coordinated rhythms. The bigger my gestures, the more laughs I get. I try on accents, pretend to be a stressed out mom getting kids out of mini-vans, or Alice in Wonderland choking on tea cakes.
No one needs to be right because there are no right answers. Perfectionism doesn’t rear its ugly head because polished doesn’t happen on the spot. Instead, I tap into my creativity, lift up my shoulders, and project a terrible impression of your crotchety neighbor falling in love with your dog. Playing in space and time we create lightens my spirit and leaves my soul refreshed. I want to play more.
I pushed myself to try a new thing and expected to have a nervous laugh or two. I’ve watched my nervous laughs turn into confident ones. I want to keep coming back.
If you’re hoping to grow and expand your spirit, I’ll ask you one question, “Do you want to play more?” See rule number one. You’re going to have to say yes.