What I Learned from Improv: 101, Week 1

    Last night was my first improv class at DSI Comedy Theater, where I took sketch comedy writing from January to April. I’ve done improv in the past, as a “theatre person” (we pretend we’re British, so we spell it -re), but never for its own sake - it was either to build rapport with a cast, or in my least favorite situations, to try and discover things about characters that weren’t in the script. (Lots of actors find great value in this. I’m not one of them.)

    Thanks to my theatre experience and a lot of time spent pretending I was on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, I didn’t come in as a total n00b; on top of that, I’ve listened to the audiobook of Tina Fey’s Bossypants at least 3 times, so I had a grasp of some basic improv vocabulary, chiefly the idea of YES AND.

    But I had (and still have) so much more to learn, so my hope is that weekly I’ll do a little debrief here. These will be personal revelations more than improv tips. If you want to learn improv, you need to, you know, do it. Without further ado, here’s some stuff I learned in Improv 101, Week 1.

    can be a good listener, if I decide to be. I talk about myself, pretty much non-stop. It’s a known flaw of mine, it runs in my family, ohmygodI’mdoingitrightnow. When I watch other people do improv exercises (or anything in life at all, really), I tend to think, “What would I do there?” Knowing this about myself, I decided that when I got up for an exercise, I needed to listen to my partner carefully, rather than always having my mind racing on to the thing I was going to say next. I was pretty sure I was going to fail at this. But mostly, it worked. I only sort of skipped ahead to my next thought once really.

    Relationships are funny. I didn’t really try this one in one of my own exercises, but stories are always funnier when they are about a relationship between two people with a shared history. So this is the thing I’m going to work on next time, I think - figuring out, in the first few beats, a relationship to my partner. And then being fluid with it, so if it evolves over the course of the scene into a totally different relationship, that’s totally cool.

    Specific = funny. I already covered this in sketch comedy, but it’s true here, too. And it’s harder on your feet, when you don’t have time for revision, to get specific. So my hope is that I’ll learn to start specific, which will save me some time in my writing process in the future.

    My life is a rich tapestry of pop-culture references. In one scene, I drew on both a B-plot from an episode of Sex and the City and a quest in South Park: The Stick of Truth that is itself a reference to Game of Thrones. I consume a lot of media, in many forms: TV shows, books, comic books, video games - and I really think that whole “If you want to be a writer, read a lot” thing comes up in improv, too. I felt like I was able to get specific quickly, to draw on stories I’d seen in other realms, without outright plagiarizing. Will Hines says you’ll learn a lot from improv because other people will mention stuff you don’t know. I look forward to my classmates letting some of their interests come through in their scenes, so I can find even more stories and facts to go check out.

    And that’s just week one! Last thing: Our homework is to find a “Yes And” moment in life sometime this week and share it on the class forum, but I’m doing a little experiment - I’m going to look for a “Yes And” moment every day. And then I’m going to share it on Tumblr.