What is Improv? A 101er’s Perspective

Lori’s Has Some Questions:

Lori, author of the Dotopotamus, friend and former colleague from my PBS days, recently commented on my post titled BRAINZZZ! – a post where I asked my friends for blog suggestions/ideas for ways to improve The Big Blue Mess (it’s still not too late to send those my way).  Lori asked about Improv – “What does it mean? Are you given scenes to act out? situations that you have to respond to?  Is it all done on stage or in a classroom?”

It occurred to me that while I’ve mentioned taking Improv classes, even talked about why I’m taking Improv classes, I’ve never really discussed what Improv actually is.  You see, I just assume you are all in my head (quite crowded) seeing the things I see and that you know the things I know (mostly about bunnies, kitties and bright shiny things – ooo SHINY!) so I forget to fill in the details.  My apologies!  (If you could only see the bunnies.)

Improv From a 101er’s Perspective

Improv is a short way of saying improvised comedy – it’s exactly what you see on Whose Line is it Anyway? Where Drew gives Colin, Ryan, and Wayne scenes to perform or characters to portray that come as suggestions from the audience.  The only difference is that in our class, we do not improvise songs (unless you count April’s comedy gold opera moment, which nearly left me on the floor).  There’s actually a separate class that handles improvised singing, but trust me when I say your eardrums and sense of taste will thank me that I do not participate.  There’s usually some loose structure “you’re on a bus”, “you’re an expert on tornadoes” or “enact the word ‘fall’ giving it different meanings” so you have a starting point, but you don’t always know where you’re going until it comes out of your mouth.  (At least, that’s how it is for me.)

The fundamentals of Improv:  energy, pacing and commitment.  The more you embrace those fundamentals, the better your Improv will be (at least that’s what they tell me).  It’s about taking risks and it’s about a seemingly simple concept known as “yes and”.  “Yes and” is the idea that whatever comes your way, you agree to “and” you add something more.  Now it sounds easy to you, and I personally thought it was easy, until you find you’re up on stage and someone gives you an offer that’s “weird”.  In that moment I’m no longer some strange un-Beth like character on the stage, I’m thrown back into Beth and Beth says PTHBBBTTT to that idea, which is called a “block”.  This is why our ever-patient teacher, Shana, told us when she first introduced us to “Yes and” that it was an advanced concept that we’d be ready for by the time we reached the 301 class (or maybe it was 401).

Speaking of Blocks

An example from Saturday:  I entered the scene as a stoner (for the record, I was not doing an impersonation of anyone I know, because that would be mean spirited – it was just a coincidence) – the weight of the universe was dragging me down and immediately the group mentally said “yes” and became my little gang of bummed out friends.  One of the guys looked at me and said something like “do you want to do some coke” and I had a moment.  “No, coke is BAD for you.  I don’t think anyone I know who smokes does coke.  Is cocaine a narcotic? What would that do to my buzz?  OMG! I think my buzz is ruined!”  I muttered something about it being coke and then finally went along with it, but it was a soft “block” where I should have been more “COKE!  Who has a rolled up $100?”  The next group got on stage and one had a knife that he was trying to hand off.  The other guy wouldn’t touch it.  In fact, there was some confusion about where the knife actually was.  “The knife is here.” “No, it’s two feet behind you.”  (What is known as a “hard block” where you deny a person’s reality.)  What was supposed to happen was “yes, I’ll take that knife…”  (Although, I will say that scene really worked for me and probably made me laugh the hardest that day, but who knows – if he had said “yes” it could have gone in an equally amusing direction.) 

For more “Yes and” goodness, you can visit: www.yesand.com  – get a talented/seasoned veterans point of view on it (whose puppet is the one that nibbled on Jay’s head during the recent CRACK! Performance – naughty puppets).

There’s a lot of concepts involved in Improv, from “yes and” to types of offers to concepts like the circle of expectations and I strongly recommend, that if you’re interested and want to just run off for a few hours of fun, take Improv.  If you’re in Austin, then take the classes through Merlin Works.

A Couple of Things I’ve Learned

1) Failure is inevitable.  You will fail.  The best thing to do when that happens, is raise your arms over your head, smile real big and take your bow.  Then you move on.  2) The best comedy isn’t planned. (or maybe that’s just me – hey, I’ve only had 14 hours of classes, what do I know?)

My Saturdays

Back to Lori’s question about what I do and where it takes place – I go to a local theater called the Salvage Vanguard Theater.  It’s a small/hip little theater in East Austin just down the way from Hoover’s.  The class is taught by Shana Merlin of Merlin Works and her hysterical assistant Aden Kirschner.  Most of the time we’re on the stage (safety in numbers), but we’ll occasionally retreat to the seats to discuss what we’re about to do, what we just did or jot down notes about key Improv concepts.

Warm-ups occupy the first part of class where all fourteen of us stand in a huge circle and do something outrageously silly – something that can’t be described on a blog, because there are just no words that do justice to “bunny, bunny, toki, toki”, “kitty wants a corner” or even “whoosh, bang, pow”.  (But, if a group of you want to show up at my house, I’d be happy to teach you, because they’re really stupid fun. Yesyesyesyes.)  From there we’ll break into pairs to work on some new concept that’s been presented in class and later it may be just two to four folks on stage while the rest of us watch, laugh and learn.

Shana creates a safe environment that is also fun.  I can’t express enough how important it is to find that in a teacher, especially when you’re out there taking big personal risks on stage.

Personal Aside

I do plan to do a wrap-up once 101 ends, but it wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t share a story about me.  As most of you know, my plan is not to become an improviser – it would be too much to hope and I simply don’t have the talent – I kind of suck (which isn’t a lame attempt to get praise – I just know myself), but sucking doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the hell out of the class or enjoying the folks who surround me every Saturday.  For me, I’m working on that “shy” thing and the risks that I take involve opening my mouth in front of strangers.  (It turns out I can be quite loud.)  But yesterday, Shana laid out a game called “yearbook photo”.  The gist of it was four people get up and pose for a yearbook photo, then one-by-one they step out of their pose, talk about who they are and describe one of the classmates in the photo, then they return back to their pose.  I was crazy EXCITED!  I was doing mental flips in my mind like a hamster driving around the house for the first time in their brand new yellow hamster ball squeaking “YAHOOOOO!”  It completely played into my love of creating a character.  (That’s my absolute favorite part of class in fact thanks to years of mocking people, which I would never do, because mocking people is wrong – especially mocking that crazy pharmacist at CVS from last Sunday, but I digress.)  Shana invited four people to come down and that’s when I froze.  I couldn’t bring myself to move and I watched as four other people got on stage.  In my head, I was screaming at myself to get up, but my nervous system refused to send the right signals and defiantly sent a secret note to my brain that went, “uh uh”.  I excused my inaction with a “well, they’re better than you and they’ll be much better at this game, they deserve to be up there, you should just sit here quietly – I mean look at who’s up there, two real improvisers, an actress and that really funny guy – who are you?” then I spent the rest of the day kicking myself, because I should have gone.  Improv is about taking risks and I failed to rise to this particular challenge.  Needless to say, the “shy” thing is really getting in the way of me having fun, so that’s going to continue to be what I have to work on in class.  Shana once nailed my personality a few classes in and the gist of what she said was, “you tend to sit back and wait for attention, but you’ve got to demand it.”  That’s 100% true. 

Others work on honing their skills as improvisers, while my task is to work on being seen and being ok with being seen, which scares the hell out of me.

That’s a Wrap

So, there you have it.  My random rambling thoughts on Improv – from the perspective of someone whose only be in it and around it for a very short time (in other words, take what I’ve said with a GIGANTIC grain of salt).


No information presented in this blog about Improv should be considered Improv wisdom, nor does any content herein substitute for the wisdom of a trained Improviser.

This post brought to you by the generous application of the SAVE button.

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