One of my favorite warm-up games in improv classes is called “7 things”. Each person gets a turn around the circle. When it is their turn the person lists 7 things about the topic they have been given. (For example: 7 songs you love to sing in the shower) After each thing they list, we count off, and collectively yell “yes!” to their suggestion.(Africa by Toto - yes!, Easy by Lionel Richie - yes!, Take On Me by a-ha - yes!, Beat It by Michael Jackson - yes!, Let’s Stay Together by Al Green - yes!, Pour Some Sugar On Me by Def Leppard - yes!, The Sweater Song by Weezer - yes!)
I have seen this game played a handful of times. Sometimes, 7 very hilarious things emerge, and we marvel at the quickness and cleverness of the player. Other times, the list of 7 involves grunts and random noises, and we celebrate witnessing a person being brave and contributing. The game teaches the individual to be present to themselves and say the first thing that pops into their head without getting stuck in thinking and planning. It teaches the rest of the group to stretch the muscle of saying ‘yes’ to each other.
This becomes, out on stage, a way of creating an environment where others are on the lookout for ways to support each other.
Before any show, before anyone in the community goes out on stage to perform, everyone pats each other on the back, and reminds every single person in the team: “Got your back.”
Translation: As we’re going out on stage, know this: I’m going to say ‘yes’ to you. This stage is for playfulness and improvising and having each other’s backs. Your humanity and belonging is not on the line based on whether you know something or not. I am going to honor what you contribute. I am not going to tell you to start over and change it before you can arrive here and be welcomed.
You already belong. Be who you are.
The stage among improv peers, though a space of tremendous vulnerability, becomes a space of freedom, safety, and the freedom to fail.
In fact, knowing someone has our back is a crucial step to being able to grow, sharpen, and thrive.
We fear less going out on stage and being brave, because we know that folks will be supportive, that they have our back.
We know we have surrounded ourselves with people and an environment that will be actively seeking how they can be supportive and cheer us on.
I have seen in myself and my peers that we go from that stage out into the world, knowing that these people have our backs. They hold our stories and the vulnerability we have shared in play. Alongside them we can try new things and fail and look ridiculous, knowing we’ll be supported, celebrated, and encouraged. We’ll grow as human beings, knowing our belonging is never contingent in this space on how well we perform or how perfect we are that day.
In contrast to so many other spaces that hold belonging at the cost of achievement, appearance, or accolades, improvised comedy begins with belonging, celebrates showing up, and encourages leaning into and learning from failure. The improv community provides a stage where one first belongs, and in that space of belonging, can build the muscles of growth and improvement.
You belong here. Got your back.
Evey McKellar is a Level 3 Improv student, a writer and UMC clergy. She works for a nonprofit, lives in Dallas, and loves Cane Rosso.