(ATLANTA :: 23 March 2012) Us writer-types are notorious cocooners. We isolate and analyze, hewing to thought lines, parsing sentences, stretching syntax and linking semi-coherent thoughts to tell a story with which folks might identify.
We scare ourselves within the private confines of a looming deadline or project weight - with a screaming, nagging, fearful voice that only we hear. Yes, like a dog whistle, and it’s as loud as a police siren sometimes. We’re also taught to question conventional wisdom and turn over details for accuracy and truth.
Improv comedy, I’m delighted to say, is the polar opposite of the writer experience (for comedy writers like Tina Fey, though, it has been a boon - see below). In the nutty, frenetic world of improv, everything is true. We are challenged to get out of our heads and into a scene, out loud and proud, committing to our fellow players as we quick-build a “platform” of the who, what and where. If non-fiction writers and authors like me are storytellers with words, improvisers do the same out of thin air. Like trusting a tightrope strung with sewing thread.
“Don’t think” was the motto for the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, a legendary improv comedy troupe out of Chicago. The group produced the likes of Amy Poehler and other, future SNL players; its motto is 1,000% counterintuitive to a writer’s mission, and also 1,000% true.
Tech hotshot Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, ran into the same thinking-man’s improv trap that I did early on, and flunked his first attempt with Tina Fey (starting at the 3:00 mark):
“It takes a long time to learn those basic rules of improv,” Fey said in that interview. “Improv changed my professional life and world view.” Agreed. The sense of camaraderie and mission is deep and strong with our Automatic Improv group, a feeling that can produce lots of funny results and a great sense of teamwork and admiration.
“You have to be open to any possibility, and that any idea that you stumble upon together will be more interesting that you started with as individuals, which was helpful to me as a writer,” Fey says.
So, this post goes up for two reasons. First and foremost: if you have any urge or inclination to try improv (writer or not), do. It will change your life as it has mine. Also, I thought some tips for newbies would help pay it forward.
Here are five rules to live by when stepping out on improv’s tightrope:
1. Trust yourself. After 6-8 weeks of classes, you’re ready. Once you understand how the games work, the rest will flow naturally. You don’t rehearse like actors; you practice to know the craft. Trust your fellow players, too, because they will make an offer (a.k.a. a “defining moment or element of a scene”) you can’t (and shouldn’t) refuse. To that end...
2. …always agree. You’ll learn that, “yes, and…” is more of a universal philosophy than a turn a phrase. Like Tina Fey says in the above clip, a denial of someone’s offer is a “brick wall” and your scene will come crashing down. Just ask Joan Rivers.
3. Do cardio and core. This is an intensely physical activity, one for which you should prepare with time on the treadmill or elliptical - preferably before your practice or show. I do core exercises to make sure I’m up to the challenge, and it seems to have done the trick to wake me up before I’m supposed to be on.
4. Choose wisely. Don’t just choose the first improv group you find - do your research. Go to a few shows at different venues to find the right fit for you. Some places with the best pedigree or reputation in town may not be good for you individually. Listen intently to your instinct in order to choose your best co-players.
5. Bring mints. With all the talking and breathing, your breath will likely derail trains. This is also true for your fellow improvisers, so bring a cache of mints with you to share and bring some relief.