Friday, May 02, 2008

Improv

I don't write much about improv, but today I'd like to rant and rave a bit about the interesting quirks and side effects of getting involved in this strange little art form.

Improv is a strange little beast that attracts an interesting (and fun) group of people. Most of my life has been spent hanging around middle-class white dudes, and improv is no different. Improv in Chicago is dominated by a bunch of middle-class white dudes (myself included). This is neither a complaint or a commendation, but simply a fact. That's not to say that there aren't any minorities because there are. The minorities are just, well, in the minority.

The improv community - as many performance/art communities - attracts a certain type of person, however. This person is obviously not afraid to get up on stage in front of large (but mostly small to medium sized) crowds without having any idea what he is going to say. This takes a certain amount of confidence in your ability to think quickly. Of course, these people are most frequently stepping on stage into nothingness under the premise that they can make the audience laugh while making things up. Once again, that's borderline cocky. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's necessary to be any good at all. Fortunately, for most improvisers that I've met, the confidence they have in their abilities does not turn into annoying cockiness off stage. Often times it's quite the opposite. I've had many conversations with improvisers who are quite uncomfortable in well attended social situations (myself included). Don't think that all improvisers have some kind of social anxiety, but it's not as uncommon as you might think.

The nature of improv requires that you learn to trust your scene partner and the one cardinal rule is "yes and" - or some form of that. "Yes and" simply means that you accept what your scene partner says and then build upon it. Improv is free-flowing and ever-changing so you'll often hear people say that "no choice is a bad choice" or something to that effect. This is great and there is a certain zen to it all, but the fact is that there are bad choices. Or if you prefer, there are better choices.

Many times, this idea that no one is wrong gets translated into the coaching or teaching world and coaches will do nothing but praise their teams or students. I've also performed with a large number of people who think that a director is "mean" if she gives out critical notes. In fact, this is the one thing that really bothers me about improv. There are too many people that think everything should be sunshine and rainbows all the time. Sure, we should generally be nice and respectful to one another but there is nothing wrong with saying that an awful scene sucked. Of course, that comment should then be followed by constructive notes that help the performers learn from the mistakes they made in their crappy scene. The last thing that many improvisers need is someone telling them they were great when they weren't. In fact, the only way that you can improve as an improviser is if someone consistently gives you critical notes. If you already think you're great and you're told so all the time, you won't do anything to change or improve.

In my opinion, improvisers are babied too much and it hurts the quality of improv everywhere.

One of my favorite things about improv is that you really learn a lot about yourself simply by trying to do it. You find out real fast if you're the kind of person that steps up to the challenge or completely shuts down under pressure. I found out that I'm the kind of person that steps up to the challenge and gives it my best shot. That certainly doesn't mean that I bring down the house every time I step on stage. I've had my share of nights where I just wasn't funny. Fortunately, those nights are less frequent than the nights where I am funny. See, there's that borderline cocky thing.

The most important lesson that improv has taught me is to be confident in myself. Since I've been improvising, I've learned that I can trust my instincts in nearly every situation I encounter. I've become more comfortable speaking my mind at work and my presentation skills have greatly improved. Plus, it kinda helped me find myself. I'd always had a creative side that never really got much attention, but improv allowed me an outlet for my creative tendencies and I've been much happier ever since.

If you'd like to see me do my improv thing, check out www.whatisph.com. I perform on Friday nights.

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