I think that the most important lessons I have learned in improv have had a huge impact on my regular life. So I thought I would list some choice pointers I have learned and how I think they apply to life in general.
It’s About Choices Not Ideas
When I started improvising I thought it was about cleverness coming together on stage, now I see it more as just reacting to what is already there. One of the most powerful pieces of advice I got from a teacher was to “love it or hate it, just pick one” in reaction to an offer. You can find out why your character has that reaction as part of the reaction, but either one is better than just doing nothing. It is simple actionable advice and helps me have fun on stage more than any clever idea I come up with.
In life I think that choosing to do something is what ultimately gets you places, you often learn loads afterwards whether it was the right or wrong thing to do. Being paralyzed into doing nothing is one of the worst feelings in the world, and it’s easy to talk about grand projects and plans without doing anything about them. Ideas are very seductive and I know that talking about things has often been an excuse for me to not actually do anything about it. I see the same thing in “talky” scenes, two people talk about a scene that would be awesome to watch, but because there are a lot of funny ideas being thrown about they get to fool themselves into thinking they are really doing something.
The real example of this in my life was my choice to do standup for the first time. I was talking about setting a date to do it, then in the middle of that conversation I said “Wait a minute, why am I talking about setting a date to set a date, I will set that date now. I will do standup in the next month,” and I did standup for the first time about 2 weeks later. I would never have done it by talking about it, I needed to make a choice and set myself a deadline. Talking about it was not doing it.
Some Choices are Stronger Than Others
I have found that playing positive characters usually gets me more places than negative characters, and playing characters that care about other characters is where it all comes together. The obvious opposite of this is the character that doesn’t care. If you play character that doesn’t care about anything you are making it harder on yourself when you improvise. To clarify this point, look at Inspector Clouseau or Basil Fawlty, Imagine if the Inspector didn’t want to solve crimes and sat around the station all day, or if Basil didn’t care about his hotel and sat behind his desk glumly. Suddenly two classic comedy archetypes are just supporting characters. It seems really obvious but it can be very tempting to play a useless policeman who doesn’t want to do anything, and suddenly you’ve put a huge barrier in front of yourself.
In life I think the most recent example of this was when I left a job that involved helping the public in a government office. Due to the limits of civil service funding it meant that everyone was overworked and there was no way to help everybody who needed it. It felt more like pushing people through on a conveyor belt than genuinely helping them. The position was temporary contract, and I knew that the job was obviously not for me long-term, but one of the most frustrating things was how so much cynicism had crept into the workplace. I decided I didn’t want to get cynical about it, and I still wanted to help people that needed it, eventually that led me to volunteering for Samaritans, which has been rewarding experience that teaches me new things all the time. The listening training there has fed back into my improv. So for me the choice to go and do something else instead of walking away and doing nothing was the stronger choice. Be somebody who cares, in improv and real life.
It’s About Patterns, Not the New
A scene filled to the brim with original ideas is like a load of spokes with no rim, there may be interesting shapes to look at but it doesn’t go anywhere. I find scenes where I build up a game or story with another player feel more satisfying than ones that have load of different things going on with no focus. I think supporting the other player by using what they have said or done lets them know you are together on stage, and gives both of you confidence. You find the original stuff after you have both agreed and gone into new territory.
In life this is what convinced me to write this article. I was worried whether this was going to be anything original about improv, but then I realised it doesn’t have to be. Repeating things is what cements them in our minds. There are loads of “What X taught me about Y” precisely because of patterns. We like to compare things and see how they relate. Drawing attention to these patterns is another way of reinforcing our learning. We resist doing what has already been done, but sometimes you need to go round and make that rim so you have a wheel. Another pattern, this point is now complete.
Commitment is All You Have
Whatever you learn and no matter how many years you practice I think there will always be times when you are standing on stage feeling completely lost or out of place. When you realise you are feeding peanuts to a Nonsense Machine and don’t know why you are doing it, all you can do is commit. You feed those godamned peanuts to that machine like it’s the most important thing in the world, and it suddenly its all fun again. Especially if it was not fun in the beginning, really committing to it is the only way to make it fun. That’s why many scenes flounder for the first half and then somebody finds something interesting and it takes of from the second half. If we just commit to the first thing in the scene we can have a great scene from the very beginning. Why start a scene half-way through when you can avoid all that uncertainty from the beginning?
Similarly in life, whatever you are doing you either commit to it, or you are waiting to bail on it at some point. So that’s why I think it’s important to commit to the things that I do, like improv. I may not have all the skills I need to improvise at the moment, but the only way I can get them is by continually working at it. And that holds for everything I do in life. The alternative is starting your life halfway through.That is something to regret. Putting your heart into what you do is never something to regret.