Take an improv class, even if you’re not (that) funny

“Circle up in 5, 4, 3…”

This year I signed up for my first improv comedy class. It was something that I had wanted to try for a number of years but never quite pulled the trigger.

My mild curiosity for theater began just a couple years after graduating college. A friend of mine, Liz, got me started with some rudimentary acting lessons. While never plunging into full-fledged acting, I worked part-time with her theater group to produce light and sound for their spring production.

It was light-years apart from my humdrum 9-5 life and was a ton of fun.

I kept in touch with her group that year and joined in on American Repertory Theater’s production of Wild Swans. It was there that I was introduced to a wide cast of characters from around the world, including Katie Leung from the Harry Potter series. A couple of cast members have since moved on to successful careers in movies and television, which is always impressive to see!

Later that spring, as the production was wrapping up, I made the pivotal decision to apply to grad school and pursue my MBA part-time. Acting and theater immediately fell by the wayside.

I promised myself that I would reconnect, someday…

That someday happened to be early this summer, two years after finishing with grad school and eagerly looking for new ways to fill my time. As my first foray into the improvisational comedy space, I had no idea what to expect.

I walked into the bright, orange-colored room at ImprovBoston in Cambridge on a Saturday afternoon and sat down next to a dozen or so other students. We were a bit anxious and prattled quietly while our teacher took attendance. At first, it seemed like just about any other first class I’ve been to: quiet, tame, and just little mundane.

Suddenly, our teacher Nate stood up, clapped his hands, and announced that we had five seconds to “circle up” and engage in some of the day’s most ridiculous activities.

What happened in the next two hours continues to amaze me to this day. If you ever need a way for perfect strangers to acquaint themselves quickly, take them to an improv class. We quickly ingrained each other’s first names by acting them out in charades. We yelled random noises at each other and loosened up with tribal chants and karate chops.

In an instant, I could feel a sense of relief from some of the nervous tension in the room just moments prior, and the mood lightened and heightened as we smiled, giggled, and played along like schoolchildren.

We played with imaginary balls. We practiced our best dramatic throws and catches, some Gold Glove-worthy. Nate passed me a typewriter that he made out of thin air, and I had to type on it and form it into a new object before passing it on. We walked around the room and quacked like ducks, went ice skating, and even rode a roller coaster together. A few games of zip-zap-zop really got us thinking on our feet.

Over eight weeks, we played dozens of different games and acted out short scenes. We melded as a group and I developed an intimate, yet lighthearted connection to my classmates. Our teacher ensured that we had a ton of fun during our classes but also reinforced some of themes and lessons at the end of each class.

This was a learning experience unlike anything else I’ve tried over the years.

At the end of our “semester,” we performed a short, twenty-minute series of games and sketches for a live audience. It was an adrenaline rush and went by much quicker than expected. We even gathered a few laughs from the audience. At the end of our shtick, we watched the advanced classes perform, and they were unreal.

I’m no improv master and continue to learn week-by-week. This month, I started on the second of seven levels of improv classes with a whole new troupe of students. I hope to pursue the classes to the best of my ability and see where it might take me in the future. My main takeaways are…

  • Classes focus on playing games and learning to think and act as a group (and play like a child again). Think of it almost as a two-hour, structured recess combined with some of your favorite drinking games.
  • Improv is not only utilized on-stage, but in day-to-day conversation with friends, family, and colleagues. Being more of an introvert, I’ve found it helpful to improve my ability to make small talk, especially with strangers. It’s still a work in progress though…
  • Scenes are all about listening and engaging with your scene partner and team. You’re in this together. You learn to focus in and pay attention to all of the potential conversation fodder that can make for an interesting scene.
  • You laugh harder than you have all week.
  • You meet all sorts of people in your class and through attending shows at the theater. I find that improv knows no bounds of race, gender, age, social class, or religious beliefs. I’ve worked with high school students, retirees, baristas, physicists, accountants, artists, and dentists.
  • As Nate put it bluntly before our first show, “None of this f@#king matters!” It’s so true: not in the sense that improv has no value, but that you need to have a no-holds-barred attitude and open mind to perform at your best. The magic of improv unfolds when you don’t think about being funny!

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