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.