Comedy

How Improv Has Helped Me: Misconceptions, Misfires, and Misfits

I first started doing improv because I wanted to be a voice actor. I had been doing voices for years before I ever did an improv class. Mimicking others became an easy way to impress and fit in with other people socially. It also kept me from having to be my authentic self.

Lots of people do impressions, and mine were regularly making their way into the scenes that I was performing. This was due to a common misconception in improv that anything goes. Improv is very susceptible to hijacking by bad actors, and due to the supportive nature of improv it can be a difficult craft to navigate. However, it was through improv I learned how to write songs and comedy sketches spontaneously, and it has also taken me to many different places across North America.

I took as many improv classes as I could for years. Every time there was a chance for me to do improv I participated. I was doing short form, long form, and musical improv. I auditioned and was denied entry twice into the largest improv company in town, and so I auditioned for another smaller company and was accepted.

I used to rely on playing these stock characters and doing impressions because I knew I would get a reaction from the audience, and because I lacked a fundamental understanding of what made a scene work. As a group we were playing to survive because we had a loose grasp on what we were trying to achieve and how we were trying to achieve it. The show was described as an improvised musical, and we had a magician, some dancers, some singers, and two comedians. We were a group of misfits who were all there for different reasons. Things gradually fell apart both on and off stage. We had plenty of misfires and bad shows, as well as some good ones. We even won some awards.

I would personally reflect on most of the shows we did and try to analyse what had happened, gauging if the show was good or bad in my opinion. Most people in the cast weren’t interested in doing any analysis and “good show” was about all that anyone said after the shows were over. Notes happened for a brief period, but they almost tore the group apart and soon ceased happening altogether. Every positive review we garnered only served to embolden the internal delusion that we knew what we were doing well enough to charge people money to watch us perform.

It was around the time that we were coming off of a multiple award winning tour that I discovered a book that changed my life. A manual of sorts that explained the process of improv comedy in a way that made sense to me. It was then that I shed the impressions, began embracing my authentic self, and discovered how much deeper I was able to dive into comedic ideas. I suggested that myself and the rest of the cast begin working on improving our improv so that we could all be equipped with the tools of success. This suggestion combined with internal gatekeeping by the power brokers at the top of the hierarchy caused a paradigm shift that would eventually end my relationship with that company.

After we returned from touring things took a turn for the worse. Some of us had advanced our abilities, but most of the group hadn’t thought about or practiced any improv for many months. I personally had experienced a revelation and couldn’t go back to the old ways. As if I had eaten the forbidden fruit of the tree of improv knowledge I was cast out of Eden by those in power, and sentenced to grow old and die in exile. As I left the banal safety of my old group, I embraced my new path with a fresh mindset.

A small number of us formed our own group, Powercub. We had a stronger focus although we had to adapt and make several adjustments, removing misfits from our group until we finally became Good Improv. Good Improv is more than a name, it describes our process and our philosophy. By adhering to the rules of improv we strengthen the outcome of our sketches. By building on an idea as a group we elevate each other through teamwork.

Practicing improv for thousands of hours over the course of the last 7+ years has made me a better listener. When I’m in conversation I listen to absorb information instead of waiting to reply before someone has finished speaking. My ability to focus has increased and I’ve become much better at working collaboratively with others. Improv has helped me with public speaking skills and increased my observation, memory and awareness as well. Working on a shared comedic idea is far more satisfying because it makes everyone look good, rather than placing my self interests over the greater good.

When an improvised sketch goes really well it appears to have been written beforehand, and the improvised sketches I produce today with Good Improv have much greater variety because they aren’t dependant on the same bag of tricks being used over and over again ad nauseam. Writing sketches spontaneously in a successful way requires a mix of skills. When people aren’t fully listening to each other then confusion and conflict arise. If something is incoherent then it’s difficult to follow. Good Improv provides a process that makes being creative easier, and it all relies on having strong fundamentals.

Good Improv has taught me to let go of preconceptions in favour of honoring what is happening in the moment. I was able to find my own voice, even though I began doing improv using the voices of others.

What do you think?

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