By SAM BROMER
This past July, I managed to overcome self-doubt and long browser loading times long enough to enroll online for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre’s introductory course on improvisational comedy. I decided to take the class mostly because there was no reason not to do so. My summer internship’s mid-summer hiatus coincided precisely with the dates of the course, and the only alternative plans I had in mind boiled down to a few variations on sitting, lying down and staring at things.
Coming in, I had two main reservations. The first was that, as someone without any performance experience, getting up on a stage without any prepared material and trying to make people laugh was absolutely terrifying. Second, I wondered just what exactly I planned on taking away from the course. When I told family members that I would be taking a comedy class, I was usually met with incredulous stares — and I didn’t really blame them. The concept of an “accredited” improv school seemed completely absurd, even through UCB, whose alumni have gone on to find success just about everywhere in television, film and online (see SNL, 30 Rock, The Colbert Report, Broad City and any other show that might be vaguely classified as comedy for some examples).
Two weeks later, these concerns were gone. My class’ final performance went smoothly, and I had been given the opportunity to act like a complete idiot in front of a large group of people. More importantly, though, I began to recognize that the techniques we used to become funny and engaging onstage applied strangely well to the real world.
There are three basic stages of an improv scene. In the first, the performers establish the scene’s base reality — answering who the characters are, what they are doing and where their scene takes place — by agreeing to and building upon any information their dialogue reveals. Once this reality is established, those onstage must recognize the first unusual thing about the reality they create. Finally, the performers work together to heighten and explore this strange detail.
For a scene to have any success at all, a performer must make sure to:
· Listen intently to every bit of information put forward, no matter how seemingly mundane.
· Avoid the impulse to correct, deny or ignore others’ ideas.
· Remain entirely in the present, no matter how easy it may be to revert to discussing the past or speculating about the future.
· Commit to inhabiting someone else’s worldview.
· Play to the top of his or her intelligence by reacting truthfully and honestly to even the most absurd premise or situation.
Broken down in this way, it’s not difficult to see where skills learned in an improv course might apply elsewhere. Take, for example, modern Alzheimer’s care. A recent episode of This American Life surrounding the subject of “magic words” included the story of Karen and Mondy, a couple with years of acting experience. When Karen’s mother Virginia was stricken with this disease, she and her husband had found it impossible to try to keep Virginia grounded in reality without making her angry and confused. But, inspired by an Alzheimer’s webpage that included the improv mantra to “step into the world” of the man or woman afflicted by the disease, the two began to agree and build upon the things that Virginia would say, rather than contradict them. If she declared that monkeys were out in the yard, the two would not react with anger and consternation, but instead, would pretend to see them, too.
Improv’s “Yes, and” principle has also been used to great effect in the world of advertising. As Seth Stevenson wrote in an article on the subject for Slate, “Improv … requires excellent listening skills, rewards those who shed their inhibitions and leap into the middle of the group dynamic, and offers valuable lessons about the wisdom of shrugging off setbacks.” Improv workshops have become commonplace in office environments and on work retreats. For better or worse, it has emerged as a useful tool to improve productivity.
More broadly, it is clear that alongside the obvious benefits of improv — being “funny,” thinking on one’s feet, and speaking publicly — it provides a forum to practice important, but often overlooked, basic life skills. But what do I know. I spent my precious time and money on a comedy class.