🎭 What an Improv Class Can Teach: Life as Theatre

Improv 101

Doing scary things once in a while is essential. And what could be more terrifying for such an introvert like me than subscribing to a theatre improv class? That is how I started one of the most exciting experiences of my life.

In fall 2019, before the world changed forever for the Covid pandemic, I started joining a group of crazy people once every week. How does Improv work? I genuinely believe that if you see an improved exercise without context, you’d think of the most extreme psychiatric hospital you have ever seen, but I will try to explain how it works.

Essentially, Improv is when there is a scene playing without written dialogue and with minimal or no predetermined dramatic activity. Imagine being on a stage and having to act a romantic act, but you don’t know who’s the lover, how you’ll conquer her/him, or whether it will appear in the scene.

During an improv class, you usually perform different exercises that stimulate the ability to survive during those acts. They are all about trying to make a scene out of a context that you happen to know a few seconds before starting. One of those exercises, for instance, is about creating a story with other people: each of them can say few words, and at the end, the story has to make sense.

Despite looking very goliardic and extravagant, Improv can teach a lot about everyday life, and I will share three of them. Disclaimer: as said before, I practiced few months, so I am not claiming to be an expert; take what you’ll read as a humble point of view.

Say yes and be constructive.

Exercise: two people have to perform a repetitive action or movement in silence. When the instructor says so, the two need to start to interact somehow and create a scene. For example, a guy could be pretending to read while the other is playing the piano. At the beginning of the act, the second one could say, “you are playing well, take care of the beginning of the first movement!” pretending to be the piano teacher, and from that, the scene can continue in many ways.

Easier said than done: often it happens that one of the two assumes a harmful and destructive behavior at the first interaction, negating what the first actor said. “No, I played the first movement correctly”. After that, the scene turns into a fight, and it is hard to recover and build a meaningful act. It would have helped to answer, “What did I do wrong, teacher? Could you show me?”

Also, it is normal to have a negative attitude in everyday life and deny whatever others say because we feel like we do not have too much information or context. It’s an automatic mechanism of protection against uncertainty.Unfortunately, that tends to kill conversations and, consequently, relationships. Try instead to be constructive, and build relations with others using positive statements after listening attentively to your partner, even if the context is entirely unexpected.

From The Office. Credits to NBC.

Be specific at any cost.

Another exercise: a group of players sets in a line. Each of them is a radio speaker, and it is responsible for inventing a radio program. The first starts, and each time the instructor gives a signal, the closer player has to continue the program using the exact last words the first player just used. The instructor usually makes the game funnier and more complex by assigning themes to the radios that modulate their pieces around the topic. For instance, you can say that one player should be a Health Radio, another a Rock Radio, another one a Satanic Radio, et cetera. If you play with Italians, you will see them looking forward to being Radio Maria.

Again, the exercise is way easier said than done: the players naturally tend to struggle to find new things to say after the first seconds, and only the so-called “bullshit generators” seem to survive.

You do not have creativity here to complete the task. The trick here is to be specific and concrete, mentioning all the tiny details possible. When telling a radio story, for instance, don’t say only “there has been a huge crash in Florence”, but start going into the details like “three vehicles crashed because the first driver was using the phone and did not see the second one” or “the family in the second car was coming from a trip in the Alps”, and there are many other details you could name: the job of the drivers if there’s been a dispute after the traffic, what the police thinks about, the current status of traffic and the list of other details can be endless!

Communication requires specificity. The human mind does not like broad concepts and ideas. To back up a message it is always necessary to reinforce the message using examples, detailed implementation, and concrete facts. In this article, I could have avoided all practical examples of how improv classes work: the moral would have been the same, but would the meaning be unmistakable in the same way?

Whenever you are talking to someone, put some effort into explaining your story’s details, and if someone asks you how are you, do not just answer “Fine”.

A dramaturgical approach to life

Life is like a play in theatre: it does not matter how long it lasts, but how well it was played. Seneca

Every day is a succession of scenes you have barely prepared, and in each of them resides the opportunity for good improvisation. To make the best of out it, remember to say yes, be constructive and specific.

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