Minimalism and Improv: Two Birds of a Feather?

It’s an ancient practice of self-discipline, yet in our consumer-driven society, it has become trendy again. I’m talking about minimalism – it’s used in design, art and even some folks’ everyday lifestyles. Minimalism could even be used to describe the art form that you and I love - improvisation.

Sunny Allison and Raye Maddox following the fun. Photo by Josh Schneider

Sunny Allison and Raye Maddox following the fun. Photo by Josh Schneider

On the surface, they couldn’t be more unrelated. One’s a solitary practice of self-restraint, while the other one is… Well, letting it all loose in front of an audience. I’m honored to explain how the heart of improv shares the same key elements as minimalism.  

Let’s start with the fact that when you enter an improv scene, you’ve got nothing. Absolutely nothing. Wow! Minimalism. Just kidding – it’s deeper than that. Maybe you had a half-baked idea when you walked out, but now you’re on stage and your scene partner is doing an action that completely changes your thinking. Your hands mimic your partners’ motions. The Windex and paper towel that you are holding are imaginary, your comedy tools that you learned in class are scribbled on a thought in the back of your mind, and your human nature to anticipate the next move, the right move, the easiest move… becomes unnecessary.  

There’s no other choice but to listen and react in the moment, leaving any premeditated storyline in the dust. That is when the situation – what most would consider “terrifying” – simply becomes… freeing.  And there you find the joy.

It’s similar to the practice of minimalism. The absence of objects, earthly possessions, material goods, and in comedy’s case, a “game plan,” brings you to an enriching experience, one that is focused on the current instant.

Additionally, improvisation and minimalism are both practices that prioritize well-being, being present in the moment, and personal connection over the things that the world traditionally values. They “break the rules” of accepted, existing ways of living, as well as ways of performing. (In a traditional play, you’d probably never see an entire act where a pronunciation mistake becomes the centerpiece of the story.) And breaking those rules is what makes them so fantastic!

Minimalistic values are at the heart of why we’re playing, too. How many fancy things you own isn’t important – it’s all about how you feel! It’s the same for improv. An excellent improv show is measured quite differently than other forms of live performance. You’ll never see a glamorous set design or picture-perfect costumes. There’s no “clap-o-meter,” tip jar or director to tell you whether it was a success. The true indicator of a great show is determined by how much fun you just had.

In true minimalist fashion, experiences and fond memories of improv classes and troupe performances won’t take up any space or clutter your life. You’ll always carry the tools of improv with you in your mind. You’ll never need to run to find your script, or download that PowerPoint, or grab that case full of assorted wigs… All that you need is an open mind, a playful attitude, and genuine dialogue. The funny will follow.

Hannah Westbrook is a visual artist, a filmmaker and a dreamer. She performs with Left on Read and Boyoiyoing, and is a huge lover of Dallas Comedy House and all things silly.