Into the World of Improv

Cheryl Gerber photograph

It was my first improv class at The New Movement theater, and I was terrified. My nerves began to dissipate when our instructor – Tami Nelson who, along with Chris Trew, runs the theater – led us through our first warm-up. “This is your space to get real dumb,” she said.

For that day’s warm-up – the term used for a silly exercise aimed to get performers comfortable on stage – each person got a topic for seven things to list, such as “seven things currently in your car,” or more off-beat inventories like “things you would hope not to find in your shoe.” Each student lists those things, and after each thing the rest of the group responds with a resounding “YES!” After he or she has listed all the things, the group erupts in cheers.

Now I’ve been doing improv comedy for nearly a year, and that warm-up captures the spirit of improvising: it’s a supportive, safe, and yes, sometimes “real dumb” art form that teaches skills that have applications far beyond the classroom or stage.

When most people think of improv, they think of the kind of audience participation-heavy fare of the TV show “Who’s Line is it Anyway?” That sort of “game-based” improv, as it’s called, is taught at some conservatories, but TNM focuses on a type of improv that happens organically and without audience suggestions. A scene taking place on a submarine with a Soviet spy on board could begin with someone saying “Mom, I’m hungry.”

The foundation of improv is “yes/and.” That means accepting what your scene partner brings to the stage (saying “yes”), justifying it and then, from there, building a world together.

Improvisers can go on to have opportunities as performers at their conservatories and in national comedy festivals, and improv can even lead to careers in acting or comedy writing. But even those who aren’t interested in careers in comedy can gain important skills from trying improv. Since staying present and engaged is critical to good scenes, improv can make you a better listener and conversationalist. It inspires confidence. It makes you supportive because when your scene partners look good, you look good. For those needing a respite from a stressful job, improv is a space to be silly.

Also, improv works to expedite friendships among your scene partners because it’s an art form based on trust. You end up gaining friends who seem to know you more than most people. Companies often use improv as a team-building exercise, because improv is far more effective at fostering closeness than rope courses and trust falls.

Improv, really, is the ultimate trust fall: you and a group of people are diving into complete uncertainty together. It is scary, but what comes from it can be beautiful.  
 
Before my first recital (each of the five classes culminates in a recital) I was, again, terrified. But when I got up on stage, I looked around at this group of new friends and remembered that I can trust them – it’s a tradition at TNM to tell your fellow performers “I’ve got your back” before shows. Soon, the stage lights came on. Time to fall together.

 For more information on The New Movement, visit TNMComedy.com.


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