This isn’t meant to be funny, or even uplifting in any sort of meaningful way. This is just me getting thoughts and feelings out of my head, and onto, I guess digital paper. Improv changes lives. I think it has changed the course of a lot of people’s lives. I think that artists adrift in a sea of the unknowable abyss seek improv training to help them figure out a way to make order out of the chaos that they have created from their lives.
At least that’s how I came to it. I had decided to start doing standup comedy in 2012, and Tony Rivera, whom I had started befriending by going to his open mic, started taking Sick Puppies improv classes. He had no end of compliments to grant to the troupe, and the art-form. I had been curious about improv for a very long time, and I thought that it would be a good skill-set to add to my toolbox. It took me a little while to warm up to the idea of trusting my instincts, and trusting my cast mates.
I was in a very dark place in my life when I started taking improv classes. Truth be told I have been in a dark place in my life, well, through the entirety of my adult life. I have always suffered with depression and crippling insecurity. I was nearly a recluse before I started my journey into getting on stage every night and trying to get people to laugh at the terrible position in which I had placed myself.
Once I attached myself to this improv troupe I slowly started coming to realize that there were other people out there who were willing to look past my particular shortcomings. One of these people in particular looked directly through the façade I keep up and looked directly at the ME underneath. He did something that no one had done for me in a very long time, he listened.
That’s what improv is about. Listen. The performance isn’t about you or me, the performance is about us, and the audience. Casey Casperson listened to me, and then let me listen to him. I don’t know what he had to gain from listening to me. I believe he was simply being human, and he could feel the pain and anger that I radiated. He wasn’t willing to just accept that I was the person I was presenting myself to be. He sensed that there was something more underneath that tar-coated exterior, and he was going to coax it out.
I also can’t say that he had some premeditated plan of action that would cause me to pupate, and emerge in some grand presentation of exodus. He just knew that there was a reason that I had chosen to follow this path, and I seemed to be taking it seriously. He also fostered an environment where everyone who took the class, would be taught by empathetic, and giving teachers, and I would be in a class full of people whom I would learn to trust, and befriend.
A lot of these things are somewhat ephemeral. There is no way to pick and choose each person who decides to come take an elective acting class. The other members of my classes weren’t necessarily professional entertainers, and each had their own motivations for taking the classes. I am still not a professional, though I hope I’m on that path now.
The truth is that you can only get out of an experience what you are willing to put into it. I had come to a point where I didn’t have anything that I cared about losing anymore, and I came to it with some subliminal wish to find a thing that I wanted to hold onto. When I started taking improv classes I was an angry, dark, miserable person. By the time that I had completed the five levels of classes offered by The Sick Puppies nine months later I was a much more capable, much more content, much smaller (by volume, I lost a lot of weight during this time) person.
I hadn’t really made an effort to be successful at anything to that point in my life. I think that I was always frightened by the prospect of success, and the unknown. I had created a bubble around myself. That bubble, while not comfortable per se, was familiar. And the familiar is always preferable to the unsure. There is a lesson in improv that the unsure is where elation resides. When I refuse to accept opportunities that are sent my way I’m hurting myself, but I’m also hurting the person who is offering me those opportunities.
The single, most important rule of doing improvisation is “Yes, and…” We ask for a piece of input, and then that piece of input becomes inspiration for the scene we are about to create together. What I say is true for my scene partner(s), and what they say is true for me. The surest way to stall progress is to deny their offered gifts of reality.
Improv has changed my life because I finally realized that I can say yes. “Can you host this show?” Well my first instinct is to say no, yes, I can host your show. “Can you help me with this project?” Well, I’m frightened of that because I have never done anything like it before. Yes, let’s see where this project leads. The lesson I’ve learned is that if it fails, the worst thing is that the audience doesn’t laugh at the end of your scene. If we succeed, we have entertained a group of people, and given ourselves a sense of worth, and fulfillment that is difficult to attain in any other way.
I am not saying that improv is a panacea by any stretch of the imagination. We are all flawed individuals, and we all have to determine our own level of commitment to everything we do. I have a sneaking suspicion that we all have a secret ambition. What I am trying to say is that when we start accepting the things that we can’t change our path through life will be met with a lot more conciliatory behavior, and a whole lot less conflict and struggle.
Try it one day. Try saying yes to something that you are unsure about. Try looking someone in the eye and accepting what’s underneath their exterior without judging them by the pretense they project. You’ll never get entirely comfortable with it, but eventually you will just do it by second nature, and you’ll notice that good things spontaneously start occurring in your life. Go ahead, try it. I dare you.