Try Not to Think | An Experience with Improv

“So we will start by walking around the room as if you are constipated while saying hello”, Christ, what have I gotten myself into I thought as I rolled up to the class 25 minutes late. Doing the first thing that comes to your head seems almost juvenile in its simplicity. Boy, was I wrong. It was in fact one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. We have an unconscious filter based on what people think, what sounds right and a lot of the time, what’s going to make people laugh. Socially, in saying the first thing that springs to mind, leaves room for critique. Sadly, the creative spark in people can be muted due to all these pre-conceived notions. Yet in a room with amazingly open strangers, this type of behavior is encouraged and celebrated.

The thought of screwing up consumes spontaneity, not only in a room full of improvisors but in every area of life. Saying what you really think in that business meeting or taking a chance to just go with your instinct and not knowing where it may take you are all classic examples doing it without giving it a second thought (precisely what improv represents).

Every living thing improvises unconsciously; PR managers, waitresses, sales persons, friends, parents, comedians and so on. Civilisation is one big improvised process. Therefore, if we do it on a daily basis why does it overwhelm us when the title of “improv” is given to it? Expectation? Embarrassment? Or simply a fear of not doing it right. By the second week, having exposed ourselves quite broadly, I gained insight into the fact that doing it right, doesn’t actual exist. There is no correct way to improvise other than the principles that you trust your partner in whatever they create and you follow the flow presented.

In mentioning the word improv, 90% of people reply with the phrase, “that’s comedy, right?”. No not at all. It is delving into the unknown. That may sound like a divers’ expedition but that is the best way to describe the process. Improv isn’t comedy it’s creativity on acid: no time to over-think, instincts just take over. This can be comical unintentionally.

Looking into a stranger’s eyes and not being able to look away was cringy and painful, but enlightening. My 4’11 stature reached my partner’s nipple and he probably saw more of my forehead and undone roots than my actual pupils. Two minutes felt like two years. It was the simple exercises that brought the most unease. Sitting with a partner whilst being directed to be as uninteresting as possible, was ironically one of the most interesting things to watch.

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You never know where the class will bring you; characters develop and so do you without even realizing. That’s the joy of it all. Classes begin with a warm-up, maybe with awkward dancing and can finish in a bank robbery in Boston, all without planning it. The creative spark in people can be muted to an extent.

In discussing the experience with friends, I described it as being the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt. This however, was a positive thing because every Tuesday at 10pm as class drew to a close, I wanted it to start all over again. The anticipation of how we could be challenged further brought excitement and nerves. Three hours passed quicker than I could have imagined.

In six weeks, I felt I had gained a secret into how we all work as people: trust. Trust in myself that I can handle this and trust in whoever you are with that they have your back. The first sign that neither of these are present, can create this wall of insecurity impinging on us beginning ourselves. This fact resonates in different environments like with meeting people for the first time and being unsure of their humour or values. Can I give my views on Repealing the 8th or my discomfort with Trump as president, without stepping on anyone’s toes?

The audience only knows you mess up if you let them know. Similarly, people only know what we give them. This old mentality of ‘fake it until you make it’ reigns time and time again. That’s the magic of improv, it teaches a new way of thinking and trusting our own capabilities even when it feels strange. Once our comfort zone is punctured, it gives way to opportunities that we wouldn’t be able to see if we continued to stay in our comfortable, bubble-filled, routine with no scary changes. It comes down to trusting that whatever you do is beautifully perfect in that moment.

The improv classes in this piece were run by Lower the Tone.

Main image via the AV Club