Applying Improv to Everyday Life

April 12, 2010

Last year I detailed how taking a year’s worth of improv classes in the 1990’s changed my life (more here). More than just a series of classes or a style of theater comedy, improvisation to me is a philosophy.  I recently sat down and had coffee with my first improv teacher at Players Workshop, David Murphy.  Our conversation focused on some of the key principles of improvisation, various improv games and how Players Workshop fit into the comedy scene in the Chicago.  Today I wanted to share with you some key improv principles and how they can be applied into everyday life.

“All the world’s a stage,

and all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts…”

-From William Shakespeare’s As You Like It

If we believe Shakespeare’s quote – and I really think there’s a lot to it – then certainly we can take some key ideas being taught in improv classes and apply it to our lives.  Below are five key principles of improvisation.  These are by no means official… I could probably add plenty more to this list.  But for the sake of simplicity and clarity, here are five key principles…

Principle #1  Say “yes” or say “yes, and…”

I’ve seen this one in countless business and creativity books and I’ve seen it work on stage. It’s perhaps the most important principle we can learn in improv. Saying “yes” is not about agreeing to every demand or request on your time.  I firmly believe in setting healthy boundaries whether it be with our family and friends.

Saying “yes” is about having a can-do attitude.  On stage, when you say “yes,” you allow your character to be open for adventure with the other characters.  It may not be very logical, but these adventures tend to be humorous and memorable.

In the real world, saying “yes” also shows the world that you are open to adventure and ready for any circumstance that comes your way.  Saying yes demonstrates to the world that you have confidence and can handle any situation no matter how weird, crazy or uncomfortable you feel.  When we say yes to crazy situations that we aren’t sure about — we grow, we learn, we push the envelope so to speak.

Principle #2 Be in the present moment…

As actors on stage, improvisers need to pay attention to what is happening “right now” in order to fully respond to the situation in the scene.  This means that it’s important to be aware of where you are on stage, what kinds of gestures you are expressing, where the other characters are in relation to you and the length of the scene and whether it is working or not.  Being present on stage means that you are hyper-aware of what is unfolding in front of you.

In the real world, being in the present moment often means that you are “in the zone” or in a state of flow.  You’re aware of what is happening in front of you and ready to respond with the appropriate action at any time. It  means making adjustments to a given situation in an effortless manner.  It’s like watching or performing an elegant dance.

Whether you are acting on the stage in the theater or in life, if we are not living in the present moment, we aren’t really there.  We’re daydreaming and looking forward or in the past…this means we’re missing perfectly good moments that are happening right in front of us.

Principle #3 Listen

This principle is a close cousin of #3, being in the present moment.  It’s so important to listen and pay attention to what is being said on stage in order to respond in an appropriate manner.  Some of the best scenes are the ones that are built on previous ones.  The funniest lines are often the ones that are in response to something that was previously said.  If you want to be funny or look smart on stage, you must be a good listener.

It’s just as important to listen in the real world.  I’ve heard it said that “God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.”  I like that expression and, if you think about it, one of the highest forms of respect you can give another person is to listen to what he/she has to say.  Especially if you listen without judgment. Much of listening requires you to stay in the present moment and pay attention, as well.

Principle #4 Have fun!

While improv does have a reputation for being funny, one of the most profound things I’ve learned from improv is to not try to be funny. It’s more important to focus on your character and let the humor develop naturally.  Perhaps more important than trying to be funny, is being playful.  This playful attitude will likely lead to humor and adventure on stage.  If you think you are too old to get on stage and act like a four year-old, chances are you are not playful enough.  Writing from experience, one of the most liberating things I’ve done in my improv classes was to get into character of a four year-old.

In real life, a sense of playfulness and of fun will likely lead to a lower blood pressure and greater happiness and approachability. It might also lead to a greater number of friends and less likelihood that you will experience adultitis.

Principle #5 Your partner is the most important person on the stage

This principle is courtesy of David Murphy and perhaps one of the big reasons that I felt comfortable doing improv despite my shyness and stage fright when I first started.  According to Murphy, “when you are focused on the other person, you take the attention off yourself and begin to relax and get comfortable.”

What Murphy says about this principle also makes sense off the stage, as well.  A great example of this is at networking sessions.  So many of us feel uncomfortable when we are networking because we just don’t know what to say and we feel phony.  Sometimes, we just don’t know how to ask for help.  But what happens when you have a genuine interest in helping your fellow networkers? Chances are, you begin to forget about your own problems and agenda and you feel more energized.  And often, this help you provide others gets reciprocated.

As you can see, the same rules that make you a better improviser on stage can also make you a more creative, interesting person in everyday life.

How about you…in what have you said yes to recently that normally you would have said no to?

More thoughts on improv soon…

Creative Commons photo courtesy of House of Sims.

1 Megan "JoyGirl!" Bord April 12, 2010 at 6:00 am

Tim, I love the application of improv skills to so-called “real life” scenarios. Saying “YES” — reminds me of the movie “Yes Man,” which was, in my opinion, a great demonstration of the concept of saying yes to opportunities that come our way in life that ordinarily we might habitually say “no” to. Life changes when we open ourselves up to the goodness that’s out there. Being open means saying “YES!”

Being mindful & listening well are also great skills that require practice, and when performed routinely, can open up one’s life to countless possibilities. I’m a better listener than I am present-moment-worshiper, but I do my best to stay mindful when it counts.

And having fun… or as you said, being playful in life! That just feels good to me — right in my heart chakra — because we’re here to enjoy ourselves!

What an awesome, uplifting and educational post for the week. Thanks, Tim!

2 Jay Schryer April 12, 2010 at 9:12 am

Hi Tim!

I’ve never done improv, so I might be wrong with this observation, but it seems to me that one of the most valuable skills to be gained from it is the ability to think quickly and react competently to an ever-changing and unpredictable set of circumstances. It seems that quick thinking and staying calm under pressure would be skills easily learned by doing improv. Would you agree, or am I way off base with that assumption?

3 Tim April 12, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Hi Megan: Thank you for your kind words about the post. Sounds like you’re really living most of these principles already, which is great. I have not seen “Yes Man” yet, but I can imagine it takes the whole “yes, and…” idea to a hilarious extreme. You are right about opening ourselves up to the great things out there…I know I need to be reminded of this from time to time. In any case, thanks for stopping by and I hope you have a playful week!

Hi Jay: You are right with your assumption…I would agree with you completely that improv is about being able to handle anything that gets thrown your way. When I took classes, there were a few people genuinely interested in becoming an actor. But most of us had corporate backgrounds and I think we just wanted to have some fun and in the back of our minds we thought it could help us at work. It ended up helping me in more ways than I expected. Thanks for stopping by and I hope all is well with you.

4 Walter April 13, 2010 at 1:02 am

Having fun: this is the thing that I have been missing most of the time. I the past weeks I have been very serious about every activities that I do and I felt suffocated, perhaps I need to loosen up enjoy what I’m doing. Thank you Tim for this reminder. :-)

5 Lori April 13, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Hi Tim,

The closest experience to improv I can point to is doing “extemporaneous speaking” when I was in school. In speech team, it’s a type of speech that one only has about 10 minutes to prepare for — the topic being drawn randomly from a hat. I supposed that, if I loved this type of speech, I’d probably really enjoy improv. Would you agree with that assumption, Tim?

I can relate to this quote, too, “when you are focused on the other person, you take the attention off yourself and begin to relax and get comfortable.” I seem to always feel best when I’m helping someone else or focusing my energy toward someone else. Thanks for including this quote.

Thank you, Tim, for sharing your wisdom with us and for another awesome post.

6 Tim April 13, 2010 at 8:13 pm

Hi Walter: I know what you mean….I can be a pretty intense person in terms of trying to get things done and accomplished and sometimes forget the fun factor. So, while I did write this, I need to keep reminding myself of these principles, too. Thank you for stopping by and contributing and have a great week!

Hi Lori: Yeah, extemporaneous speaking is basically improv and is very challenging and dreaded by almost everyone. I would say if you liked to give an extemporaneous speech you’d probably like improv…but I will also say if you don’t like extemporaneous speaking that does not mean you won’t like improv. What’s great about improv is that you usually have some people up on the stage with you to support you (and hopefully look good). In an ideal situation, even if you say something weird up on stage, your team members will say yes and play along. In other words, I think extemporaneous speaking is tougher than doing improv.

Another thing I really enjoyed about improv were all the warm-up exercises which were great to get your brain working and firing at all cylinders. In essence, these exercises were designed to get you out of your head. And I would agree with you about David’s quote…it’s very profound and I like how it can be applied to so many different situations. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

7 Ryhen Satch April 13, 2010 at 10:06 pm

How are you doing, Tim? Quite a discussion you have here. I’m not sure if I have said “yes” to anything serious recently, but I do like what you said in principle #2 – be in the present moment. Hence, I’d like to share what I learned about it. You see, if we pay close attention to our present experience, we begin to see both the inner and outer aspects of reality as aspects of the mind. Internally, we also see that the mind is continually full of chattering with commentary or judgement. By noticing that our mind is continually making commentary, we have the ability to carefully observe those thoughts, seeing them for what they are without judgment. Those who apply this principle will realize that “thoughts are just thoughts.” If we are free of these thoughts, then we also become free to observe life without getting caught in the commentary, and it makes it easier to be in the present moment. (just my 2 cents)

Great post, btw!


8 Tim April 14, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Hi Ryhen: Great explanation of being in the present moment! I agree with you about the realization that, for many of us, our ideas of reality are aspects of the mind. I’m sure you’d agree, but I think meditation is a great tool to observe the mind and experience the present moment. I like your expression of “getting caught in the commentary” of life, which is something worth avoiding (unless it’s all positive all the time :) In any case thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

9 Todd June 3, 2013 at 10:11 am

Great article. I’m inspired to put these principals into action today! I’ve used the term “environmentally unaware” to describe people that don’t listen, pay attention to non-verbal queses, focus on the topic at hand, etc. What you’ve described is the opposite and how to be super aware of what’s going on around you! Thanks!

10 Tim June 3, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Hi Todd:

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. As you described, more than being funny…improv is all about paying attention – to your surroundings, nonverbal cues of other people in the room, etc. I have found that, when I put these principles in action, I have more magical, fun moments. Have a good one!

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