The Perfect Present of Improv – 5 Reasons Why the Funny is Fundamental

Improvisation is the essential skill of the 21st century. There, I said it. And I mean it!

Improv at its most basic is making stuff up, and let’s be honest we are all making sh*t up 24/7! It’s called living. Some of us have known about the power of improv for a while, but don’t take my word for it, go check our articles by such publications like Forbes or Fast Company! I’ve worked with improv since university and have been lucky enough to use it in my work for the last 4 years. It’s only in the last 18 months that I’d returned to study it properly, a choice I am so pleased I made.

For the last week I’ve had the honour of being put through my paces by the amazing team at Upright Citizens Brigade. Under the razor sharp eyes (ears and mouth!) of 25 year veteran of the improv scene, Anthony Atamanuik, my fellow improvisers and I were taken back to basics. Our objective: to build core long-form improv skills. At first glance the week long intensive programme was all about the art of comedic improv (and believe me there were a lot of laughs). But a mere scratch from the surface was a wealth of learning and life skills.

I could fill pages with what I learned last week (I still might!) but for now, here are the top five lessons I took away.

1. Make a choice and commit

We love to get wishy-washy and vague. Terrified of making a decision for fear of being judged, failing or ridicule. Well the wishy-washy doesn’t wash. In improv making a choice and being open and clear about that choice is one of the most powerful gifts you can give your scene partner. Early on in the programme I learned I was being far too polite which wasn’t helping my scene partners understand my needs and ideas clearly enough. This evolved. By the end of the week I was making clearer choices, articulating them and then working with the responses of my partners to commit to the action of the scene.

2. Getting out of your own way

This was a really simple and powerful lesson. It’s so easy to let the external distract you in unhelpful ways. We live in our minds, constructing stories about ourselves, our abilities and our relationships with others. Through simple activities and a couple of rules we explored our ability to distract the brain so that we could get on with the matter at hand – in this case it was engaging in dialogues that made people laugh. Amazing that by simply creating small internal rules and guides we can overcome significant barriers to communication and creativity.

3. Being really truly present

Mindfulness has become a pretty popular concept, and I can see why. Through a series of activities I found myself being truly in the moment. It takes discipline and practice to put away the past, forget about the future and really live in the moment you are in. In the moments when I wasn’t present it was obvious and immediate. The impact of holding on to my point of view or my idea would pretty much always lead to the scene collapsing or not reaching its potential. The moments when I was really, truly there are the moments that those around me got the best from me and I got the best from the experience.

4. Deep, deep listening and looking

It’s the same thing everyone says about “listening to listen, not to respond”, but in this situation if you don’t REALLY listen you’re wonderfully exposed. I experienced moments where what I wanted to say got in the way of what others needed to hear. When I listened with our whole body the things I achieved with my scene partner were magnificent. Hilarious and magnificent. Just be listening to what they were offering, accepting it and building from their together.

5. Being human

This is number 5 on the list, but it’s number 1 in terms of importance and value. Improvisation is fundamentally about being human. Being real, existing with honesty. The things we found funniest were the things that were real, not the crazy ‘look-at-me I’m performing’ stuff. Improv really gets to the truth of a moment quickly. It is the discipline of responding honestly from your point of view without judging the point of view of your scene partner. It really reminded me of the Susan Scott quote “the conversation is the relationship” or the concept of bringing your whole self to work.

It’s quite something to go back to being a full-time student, even just for a week. At times it was tough not to be the one at the front of the room. But I made myself let go of control and immersed myself in the subject and the hands of a real expert in his field.

Just that act alone was worth the price of admission.

Simon 🙂

Please note this post also appears on my LinkedIn profile.

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