Posted on 28 April 2016
At Tuned In we are celebrating improvisational theatre through Amy Poehler, the lead in Parks & Recreation and the co-host of Golden Globes 2015 with Tina Fey. This incredible woman worked hard for years, performing in small theatres with her group and constantly pushing herself out of her comfort zone. But the actual secret to her success is her ability to take chances.
So how does improvisation (improv in short) actually work? You and your team place yourselves on the stage and ask for the audience to volunteer suggestions regarding characters, setting, and objective. Then you build a story on the basis of these suggestions. The point is to be able to create an interesting plot right then, when you’ve had no time to rehearse. There’s only one rule—no suggestion can be denied, no matter how awkward or strange it may be. This is exactly why improv is incredibly difficult. But why is it relevant?
“I stood onstage pressed up against a back wall while my peers screamed at me to “sell it!” It was a “midnight improv jam” at the ImprovOlympic theater in Chicago, the freezing city I now called home. I had been taking improv classes and this late-night show was an opportunity to finally get onstage. Getting onstage was a big deal. You could spend week after week in classes doing scenes and studying improv forms, but a half-hour performance brought out the best and worst in you. I learned a lot about myself onstage.”
Improv is beautiful because you’re put on the spot to face your fears. You have to think on your feet and trust your instincts. You are left with your very natural core because there can be no foresight regarding what could happen. Moreover, you cannot negate anything your partner introduces in the scene. In a way, it teaches you about acceptance of the unknown.
“The audience was staring at me as veteran improviser and all-around captain Dave Koechner pointed and yelled, “Sell it!” I had bailed on a scene. That meant I had started a scene with someone and either failed to commit, laughed, or negated that person’s choice. Improvisation is like the military. You leave no man behind. It’s your job to make your partner look good and if you are afraid to look stupid you should probably go home.”
When the team leader asked Poehler to sell it, he meant she had to do the monkey dance. Yes, it was embarrassing but that was the whole point. This is how in improv you’d be punished for not supporting your partner.
“I stood onstage and did the monkey dance. I put my two fingers up my nose and turned it into a pig nose. I took my other hand and put it up between my legs and grabbed my crotch. I danced and made monkey sounds as everyone clapped.”
Purely as an exercise, improv is extremely powerful because it makes you focus on being present, on being in the moment. It’s a sport that teaches teamwork, probably the only sport that teaches you how to take risks and be excited to fail because you know you’re bound to stumble upon something new. Most importantly, it lets us laugh at ourselves.
Improv has many wonderful life lessons to share. You have to go with the flow, and you can only do that if you trust your instincts. When you’re trying to play a character, you have to let go of any labels you attach to yourself. Essentially, you don’t have to choose to be one person. You can be who you want to be. And that’s how life is, right? If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can figure it out by making it up as you go along. You will surely uncover your true calling along the way. Just remember to not shy away from new opportunities.