I can’t promise you that studying improv will lead to fame and fortune. Chances are, it won’t. I can’t promise that studying improv will make you smarter, funnier, or more quick-witted. Although, chances are it will. What I can promise is that studying improv and applying its concepts to real life will make you a better person.
Here are my top five fundamental improv concepts that will improve who you are:
- Yes, and. This is the most fundamental principle of improv. You create a scene from nothing by establishing a who, what, and where; agreeing to that information; and then adding more of your own. This is also called life. You don’t wake up knowing exactly whom you’ll talk to throughout the day or what you’ll say, but you create those relationships and conversations along the way. The key to success in life is taking these unplanned experiences, accepting them as gifts, and adding something new to the mix. Be open to where life takes you, agree to the unknown, and add some of your own life experiences.
- Listen and respond. This is the most fundamental concept of conversation, yet it’s often the most difficult. We get so stuck in our heads, thinking of what we’ll say next, that we miss key information that can propel the conversation (or the improv scene). Stop worrying so much about what to say or do or how you’ll be received. Instead, start listening for the gifts being given to you and then respond in like kind. After all, one of our most fundamental human needs is to be heard and acknowledged. Acknowledge your (scene/life/conversation) partner by intentionally listening and responding to them. Then watch the magic!
- Trust. The great thing about improv is that you don’t work alone. Ninety-nine percent of all improv scenes consist of one or more other people who have your back, no matter what situation you may create for them. Trust them to not let you fail. Improv is not a self-congratulatory act. We get into real trouble when we start thinking we can do this on our own. It’s creating art by relying on the gifts of those around you. Similarly, life is not solitary; it is a symbiotic community, full of partners with gifts for you and for whom you have gifts. Trust others, and they will trust you.
- Make bold choices.Successful improv scenes come, not because of realism, but because of an actor’s commitment to a character or emotional choice and selling that reality to the audience. In life, don’t waffle: Commit to what you’re doing. Sell it. Be an expert. Bold choices are memorable, compelling, and act as a driving force. Embolden yourself to make strong choices and stand by what you say and do. Put simply: Life’s short—Be confident.
- There are no rules. This absurdly entertaining rule is a favorite of improv teachers. It basically lets them off the hook when they break the improv rules they are working to engrain in you. But far from simply being a safety net for screw ups, the concept demonstrates that while there are formal guidelines for proper techniques, mistakes in improv—as with any art form, including life—can be forgiven. At the end of the day, we’re all creating something from nothing. The key to becoming a better person is to laugh along the way.
Shashana Pearson-Hormillosa is a current student at DCH. She spends her days wrangling children, avoiding housework, and hustling for acting or writing gigs. One day she’ll make life easier by changing her name to Shashana O’Shanahan.