I was recently accepted into an improv program I had to audition for. A program I didn’t make it into on my first try. A program I honestly never imagined myself even trying to get into until a few months ago.
So when the first day of school came around – a feeling that never gets old, even when you’re 27 and going to comedy school, I felt those same butterflies in my stomach and took way too long to pick out an outfit. As if that would determine whether everyone would like me or not…
And I sat in my favorite bar after work nervously trying to kill time before class began. A bar I’ve spent enough happy hours in that the bartender knows who I am because I speak Spanish and he remembers giving me and my friends free shots before our show. A night I learned it’s not a great idea to drink that much before performing, but also a night we won a competition for the first time as a team.
It’s become a place I feel comfortable. A place that feels like my own. It was a ritualistic visit in a way, like a blessing, be it with a cocktail they call la pila (which means battery) as if pineapple tequila was the magic juice I needed to be funny, a way of telling myself ¡ponte las pilas! which is to say “get your shit together”, “give it your best effort”, “work harder” before beginning this new endeavor.
An endeavor that had taken a lot of work and learning and growth to get to. And a lot of failure. I thought back to a year ago when I started this whole thing because my friend talked me into it when I was drunk. I was also confused and sad and a whole lot of other things that I didn’t know how to deal with, and embracing my inner class clown sounded a like a great way to cheer myself up.
And somehow, even though I went into it with obvious intentions of using it as a cop out, improv helped me deal with my shit in more ways than I ever could have imagined. Sipping my cocktail I realized that in a little over a year of taking classes I had learned so much more than where to find a friendly wait staff and a ridiculously good drink deal.
So while the following list won’t necessarily teach you about improv – I’ll leave that to the patron saint of comedy, Tina Fey, it will outline everything that improv has taught me about life <3
1. Eye contact is awkward AF, but it’s important.
Seriously, during my first class, one of the first things we did was walk randomly around the room making eye contact with everyone. It sounds absurd, and that’s exactly how it felt. But later on, I learned it’s how you check in with everyone on stage. You can tell a lot about what someone is thinking just by looking them in the eyes – how they’re feeling, what their relationship is to you. You can even say something back in response.
Off-stage it feels just as creepy when you’re not able to look away from someone. It makes you just as nervous. But when you realize they’re looking right back, it feels amazing. To be able to communicate without words speaks volumes.
2. Making it all up isn’t the hard part.
The most common response I get from people when I tell them I do improv is “I could never do that; I wouldn’t be able to think of anything to say.” But how many times in life do we know exactly what to say, exactly what we’re thinking or feeling, and don’t say it because it feels impossibly hard? Sometimes because we don’t think the other person will like what we have to say. Like the time I was performing a game where you have to finish the sentence “Sex with me is like [insert audience suggestion here] because [insert joke here]” and my dad was in the audience, but I stepped out to the front of the stage and blurted out “Sex with me is like a lawn mower because your dad rides me all afternoon”. Luckily they cut the lights right after that and I got to run backstage where I proceeded to fall knee deep in a hole in the floor, but you get the picture.
Ironically, I think the difference between real life and comedy is that on stage you are so terrified that no one will laugh at you, and in real life, you’re just as terrified that somebody will…
3. You need to turn it off, and sometimes you just have to turn it on.
When you’re essentially partaking in what most of my teachers have reminded me is “adult make believe”, it can be easy to take on a class clown mentality, but you end up doing a disservice to yourself and everyone around you. To really learn how to have the most fun, you have to shut up and pay attention to directions, to your teacher’s feedback, to your classmates’ performances. You have to be a respectful audience member as much as you have to be an enthusiastic performer. But conversely, there are days you are sad and not feeling funny at all and still have to play adult make believe because you’ve committed to a class or a performance.
Life works the same way. You have to take the things you love seriously, and remember to be lighthearted in the face of things that weigh you down. It’s never going to be one or the other all the time, you just have to find a balance.
4. Embrace your fears, look forward to failure.
The most terrifying thing about improv is that it can be bad. Like, really bad sometimes. But the most amazing thing about improv is that you can always start over. That you’re out there with a team that has your back, so when something isn’t working, you literally “wipe” that scene away and start another one together.
One of the most profound things that improv has translated into my actual life is that failure and discomfort are temporary. Bombing, failing, blowing it in life or on stage is to experience the worst case scenario, and it’s often never as bad as we expect it to be. And if it is, once you know the feeling, you know it can never get worse than that. You can only learn from it. It can only get better from there.
And once you’ve experienced the other end of it, the high of something working out, when everything comes together, you realize that putting yourself out there, that risking failure, is absolutely worth it if there’s even just a chance you’ll get it right.
5. Actually try your fucking best.
Sometimes there isn’t a chance to get it right. Sometimes a scene takes a turn for the worse and you’ve just got to see it through until the end until someone comes to your rescue. But even if you know no one is laughing, you can’t stop trying. You can’t break character. You don’t get to beat yourself up. You just have to do your fucking best.
This is painfully hard to do on stage, and even harder to do in the real world. I relate everything in life back to literature and poetry, and this is the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ moment, not a do or die moment, but the ‘do and die moment’. Because only caring, or at least outwardly acknowledging that you care, when things are going to work out is bullshit. It’s saving face. It’s like breaking up with someone before they can break up with you. Aka something you should only do if you’re too young to drive a car.
It takes true emotional maturity to give a shit when you know the other person doesn’t. But it’s vulnerable and it’s honest, and that’s the only way you become a real fucking person. Because it happens to us all, a test we get to pass or fail.
6. How to have a real emotional response.
And on that note, improv relies so heavily on emotional maturity, believable emotional responses to move a scene forward. If someone is being an asshole, the audience will be confused if you’re just fine with it. If someone confesses their love for you, you’ll look bad if you react the same as if someone told you they had a tuna sandwich for lunch.
And this is the way the cop-out from the difficult feelings I was having actually taught me to be more honest, more in-tune with my actual feelings. Because if you don’t know how to be genuine in your real life, you’ll never come across as genuine while playing a character, and it’s those relatable feelings that suspend belief for the audience, that draws them into your performance, and oftentimes an exaggeration of those feelings that makes them laugh.
Real life story – someone once told me the reasons they liked talking to me so much were, “Making me laugh, you’re genuine and honest and open and really easy for me to talk to.” Comedy is never fully removed from honesty True statement.
7. How to listen, collaborate, and respond.
How often in life do we premeditate our own idea of how a scenario is going to play out in our minds? And how often does said scenario deviate from that idea? This is where improv teaches you to let go of that very human need to control everything. If I say to my scene partner, “I’m sweating balls”, they could attribute it to global warming, or us living in hell or being in a gym sauna. But I have to be ready for whatever that response may be. It means letting go of whatever preconceived notion I’ve concocted in my head and letting go of the writer in me, and just truly listening to what they come back with, and responding to whatever that may be.
It’s this concept that has opened me up to life. To the fact that we only have control over our own reactions, that we can only know our own feelings ahead of time. Everything else is up to chance. There is only so much preparation we can do ahead of time. And it mainly sums up to knowing who we are and what we want. Everything else is a gamble.
8. Commit to everything that comes out of your mouth.
There is nothing that kills a scene more than the word/phrase, “Anyway…” And as surprising as it may be, it is usually spoken by the person who has introduced the theme/topic of conversation. Because they’re trying to discreetly change the topic of that conversation because they’re low-key embarrassed by what they’ve thrown out there.
In real life, this can be the “lifesaver” of sorts to a very personal confession. Like, let me open up to a very vulnerable degree, and then quickly divert the conversation before you have the chance to acknowledge how honest I was being. Bad news, in improv, the audience can tell that you’re doing this. Even worse news. In real life, it’s super obvious as well :(
9. It feels amazing to be heard in return.
Sometimes we say super stupid shit. Sometimes we mess up on English. Sometimes on purpose, and others not. Like if I said, “I’m wanting a hot dog real bad”. Maybe I have no idea where that came from, but on the off chance my scene partner heard it, acknowledged the reality I created with this grammar structure, and replied, “I’m wanting one real bad too boss.” It’s the repetition of this one word, wanting, that lets me know my partner has my back. That they were listening. That what I have to say matters to them.
In real life, if someone memorizes what you have to say, that they repeat it to you, it means you matter to them, that they’re paying close attention. That they believe in your words.
10. Having the patience to see improvement and growth instead of instant gratification.
Everything life isn’t about a gold trophy. Isn’t about being the best from the get-go. Sometimes it’s about someone who sticks around the longest. About being the person genuinely wants to improve. In comedy, there will be people who seem to nail it right away. But I learned, the hard way, that just because you fuck something up the first time doesn’t mean you can’t get better. Doesn’t mean you can’t listen to feedback, acknowledge what you didn’t master on the first pass, and give It a better go.
You can always be a better you. Be a better friend, a better lover, a better family member. You can always improve.
11. How to be the loser.
Once I seemed to overcome my fear of failure, one of the best teachers I’ve ever had told me to experience what it feels like to “be the loser”. It’s boring to “win” all the time. To be good at everything. Failure is human, is relatable. So lose, be sad about it, react naturally. But have the stubbornness to try again. To do it the hard way. To be “the loser”. Let your heart break in front of tens of people, as humiliating as that will sound, if it’s as a character, or as your real self, and move on. Be the person who was open enough to put their true self out there, and let it shine. Anyone who can’t embrace that for what it is is afraid of being hurt. And you’re so past that it’s funny.
And isn’t being funny the whole point of this anyway?