Better Living Through Improv

Zach Woods, right, with Behind The Velvet Rope TV Creative Commons

Remember that time you were at a party, thinking of a funny line that you didn’t say because you weren’t sure how people would react? Or when you felt self-conscious about voicing a spontaneous and not fully formed idea, even though you knew there was a kernel of something great in there? Or that time your legs shook so hard while you were presenting in grad school that you actually thought you were going to fall to the floor in front of everyone? Or how it once took you a whole day to summon the courage necessary to call the internet company about the outage because it meant you would have to talk to a stranger and perhaps express dissatisfaction to them?

If you consider yourself to be shy, introverted, self-conscious, anxious, or a member of that large group of people – frequently cited in courses on how to present – who fear public speaking more than death, you probably answered “YES!” And then you probably recalled some embarrassing incident, like that time you unexpectedly saw your crush walking down the street and hid behind a parked car rather than risk a conversation without adequate mental and emotional preparation. I’ve been right there with you for most of my life, wondering why I didn’t actually make the witty remark and crouching in the gutter with the soggy, dead leaves between the curb and the car tires until the crush turned down another street.

What I didn’t realize until recently was that part of the solution to these feelings of public awkwardness and social anxiety was right there in front of me. It was there in that “YES, I’ve felt that way too, AND here’s something absurd I did on one such occasion.”

“Yes, And” is the guiding principle of improvisation, the foundation upon which entertaining and compelling edifices are built, night after night, by performers across the world. Improvisers get up on stage with no script and no idea what’s going to happen. They ask for a word from the audience and then work together to build an entire universe with its own unique characters and situations. Last year, I decided to become one of those performers.

That decision – to say “yes” and sign up for improv classes at Washington Improv Theater (WIT for short) – was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It has lessened my fear of offering an “and,” encouraging me to speak my mind, contribute, and not fear judgement.

The fear is the fun

Phil Augusta Jackson, improv enthusiast and TV writer for shows including Brooklyn 99 and Key & Peele.

It’s been less than a year since I showed up to my first class, terrified and tentative, only there because I couldn’t think of a good excuse to bail at the last minute, but I’ve already noticed the changes in myself. I feel more confident and less nervous in situations where I don’t have a script and don’t know what’s going to happen, whether they be social, professional, or part of a performance. In fact, I’ve started to see the potential in those moments of uncertainty.

“We are programmed as humans to protect ourselves and say ‘no’ to things that are unknown and might be dangerous,” said Phil Augusta Jackson, a high school classmate of mine who has since gone on to perform with the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade in New York and Los Angeles and write for the television shows Key & Peele, Survivor’s Remorse, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine who I recently reached out to for help with this story. Improv, he said, is about “embracing that unknown, embracing that fear…The fear is the fun.”

For me, it all began when I moved to Washington, D.C. after finishing graduate school at U.C. Berkeley. I didn’t really know anyone here and I had no idea how to change that. You read the first paragraph. You know what I’m like. It was then that I made a conscious decision to get a handle on my shyness and social anxiety. If I could figure out the Oaxaca-Blinder decomposition in graduate school, I could surely figure out how to have a comfortable conversation with a new acquaintance at a happy hour. But what could I do? How does one learn how to be less shy? I knew I would have to push myself outside of my comfort zone, and do something that required interaction with other people outside of the professional environments where I have become fairly comfortable over the years, but I had no idea what that might be.

Improv as art

Shortly thereafter, the stars began to align. I saw on Facebook that a friend in a distant city had started taking improv classes. I’d been sitting in the audience at improv shows for years, but somehow it had never occurred to me that this was an art form – just like painting, or writing, or music – that had classes. And unlike painting and writing and music, improv would be firmly outside of my comfort zone and dependent on interaction with other people. I started to seriously think about signing up, even going so far as finding a place to take classes in D.C., but something kept me from clicking the “register” button next to the level one classes.

Zach Woods, right, with Bobby Moynihan on Behind the Velvet Rope. Photo/Creative Commons

Around the same time, I started watching Silicon Valley on HBO. It quickly became one of my favorite comedies and I developed a particular fondness for the character of Jared. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Zach Woods, the actor who plays him to perfection, started out in improv, as did several of the other incredibly talented leads on the show. But I was surprised to learn Woods graduated from my high school the year after I did. We’d probably passed each other in the hallways many times. I listened to an interview with him on comedian Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast in which Woods described starting out in improv as a 16-year-old high school student, taking the train from the Philadelphia suburb where we grew up to take classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade – an enterprise started by Amy Poehler, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts that has become a comedic empire and launched many stars. In that same interview, Woods spoke about how improv helped him get out of his head and be present, and described it as one of the only places where he doesn’t feel self-conscious. Hearing that was the last push I needed. I signed up for classes at WIT that same night.

The power of ‘yes-and’

The first thing they teach you in improv is agreement. Whatever the person who starts a scene sets up, their partner has to accept it – that’s the “yes” part – before contributing something of their own – that’s the “and” part. This dynamic creates the back and forth that improvisers use to establish the base reality of a scene – where and who they are, what their characters mean to each other, and what they’re doing – and build on it. It works on stage and in life.

“The ‘yes, and’ philosophy is a really powerful philosophy that’s wormed its way into my life,” said Ceci De Robertis, a D.C. improviser who teaches classes at WIT, sits on the organization’s board, and performs with several ensembles. She said the “yes” aspect has made her more willing to try new things while the “and” aspect has made her more willing to express herself and make contributions. De Robertis uses the skills she has accumulated through years of improvising in every aspect of her life, from friendships, to work, to dating.

Every year, she organizes a show called Shy, in which improvers can explore their experiences with stage fright and anxiety, something De Robertis understands. For her first year of performing, she made sure to carry a toothbrush and toothpaste to every show she appeared in because she frequently became so nervous, she threw up. But she kept at it until the nausea subsided.

“One day I realized I wasn’t packing my toothbrush and toothpaste anymore, and that was when I realized I had entered a new level of performance,” she said.

Improv as a team sport

She found she was becoming less focused on how the audience would judge her and more focused on what she and her fellow improvisers were building on stage.

“I was really focused on the audience and what they would think of me, their perception of me,” she remembered. “And then my frame of reference changed. I was no longer focused on the audience, but focused on my teammates, and fully supporting them.”

That element of support makes improv a strong forum for personal growth. It is a collaborative art form that requires trust and communication between performers. In addition to the people “yes-anding” in a scene, other members of the team are poised and ready to step in with sound effects or new characters who will enhance the story. They’re ready to tag out one team member if they think there’s more to explore, or to wipe a scene that’s come to a logical end or run out of steam. Before walking out on stage, teams “get each other’s backs,” a ritual that consists of patting each other on the back and saying “I’ve got your back.” It’s serves as a reminder that while you may not have a script, you’re part of a group and you’re all invested in each other’s success.

“If you’re trying to make nine people look good, you’ve got nine people who want to make you look good,” De Robertis said of the team spirit.

That atmosphere was part of what attracted David Richman, who does improv in both D.C. and Baltimore, to the community. He still remembers how impressed he was years ago watching a team of WIT improvisers supporting a man who had wandered in from the street during an improv jam session.

“It’s good to have such a supportive community that’s got my back,” he said.

Richman is on the autism spectrum and said improvising has helped inform his social interactions.

“Improv has really helped me with social skills because it forces you to collaborate and to listen to what people are saying and build on it,” he said, adding that the physicality of the art form has helped improve his ability to read people’s body language.

Everyday Improv

Devon Grams, an operating room nurse who has been improvising for six years, expressed a similar sentiment. He said that learning how to build characters and scenes as an improver has helped him to assess the personalities of the people around him and adapt his own behavior to communicate and collaborate effectively with them.

“When you meet someone, you realize they have a history, experiences, and an attitude,” he said, describing the wide range of people he encounters working in a hospital operating room. “You can find those out and improvise how to deal with them.”

Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele – kings of improv.

This spirit of collaboration, support, and growth extends throughout the comedy community. Jackson said that when he first started writing for Key & Peele, he was struck not only by the creative genius of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, but also by their ability to collaborate and coax brilliance out of rough beginnings.

“With Jordan, you’ll say something that is the dumbest idea you’ve ever had and he’ll change that one little thing that makes it the dopest idea you’ve ever had, and Keegan is the same way,” he said.

Everyone I spoke to said improv had made them more confident professionally and socially. Because improv doesn’t have a script, decisions have to be made in the moment and committed to entirely if a scene is going to be convincing.

“Being confident and not fearful of the decisions you make is 70 percent of improv,” Jackson said. “You say what’s on your mind, get a response, and keep building.”

Get out of your head

He said that a common piece of constructive feedback he would give students is that they seemed too stuck in their own heads, too doubtful about their decisions, too absorbed by second thoughts about what they’d said and done. You can make any decision you want, he said, but you have to be confident and stand behind it.

For Richman, that idea of committing to something wholeheartedly and expressing it clearly made him feel at ease.

“In so many areas of life, I’m told I’m too much,” he said. “But in improv, you’re always told to be bigger.”

Sean McClung, a classmate who’s had my back through several levels of the WIT curriculum, started out as a shy child who made a conscious decision to push himself out of shyness. He said that improv has helped him continue that push and has boosted his confidence in his ability to do things well, and fix them if they go wrong.

“I see it most in my social life,” he said of his increased confidence. “Being able to be myself and not be afraid of it as much.”

He said he is more willing to be goofy and show his sense of humor.

“I have more confidence to realize I can positively contribute to things that are fun” he said.

Anthony Cusumano, a former DC improviser who now lives in Chicago, expressed a similar sentiment in his emailed responses to my questions.

“I don’t like to think that improv helped me overcome my awkwardness; it helped me embrace it,” he wrote. “I’m a fairly goofy guy, but I was always very reluctant to share that side with anyone but my closest family and friends. When I was forced into a situation where I had to let my spontaneous thoughts out into the world and discovered that they made other people laugh, it was a huge eye-opener.”

He said before getting involved in improv, he self-censored his behavior in a way that made it hard to form connections with new people.

“Meeting new people was extremely nerve-wracking,” he wrote. “I was so afraid of looking stupid that I just never opened up at all. I’ve always been fortunate to have great friends who appreciate me for who I am, but now I have so many more, because I’m less afraid of showing my true self from early on.”

Since starting improv, I have played all manner of characters in classes and in show cases. I’ve been everything from an earnest apartment seeker with a passion for reading the Constitution to children to a zealous butcher training an apprentice to an aging Sir Lancelot meeting his opponent before a jousting match to a terrified gerbil in a pet shop. In the process of learning to be them, I’ve gotten better at being me. Or at least being me more publicly and openly. I see it when I commit to a conversation with friends from improv or work, joining in enthusiastically rather than hanging back and biting my tongue. I see it when I express the rough beginnings of an idea that I haven’t polished to perfection yet, or make a joke to a stranger at a party. They don’t always hit the mark, but if they’re never said, they never do.

Improv is not a panacea. It still takes a little extra effort for me to speak up in social settings and I still get a little nervous every time I get on stage, but I feel better positioned to make that effort and control those jitters now. I have a better outlook to take on the unknown and some skills to fall back on when the going gets tough out there in the world, which, as Shakespeare memorably noted, is a stage. I only wish I’d said yes a little sooner so I could learn to stop worrying and love the and.

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