At the start of the session, he said something like: “At the end of the session, four people will improvise a play, totally unscripted, and it will be brilliant and hilarious.”
I thought to myself: “I’d never do that in a million years.”
We played some improv games including one-word storytelling and three-line scenes, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself. “I can do this,” I thought. “This is just like the games we play as a family every Christmas.”
How restful and relaxing it was to turn off the bit of my brain that edits everything I say and do. What a joy to unleash the playful part of myself. What a delight to let go and laugh and have fun in a completely professional setting.
We got to the end of the session, and it was time for the play. I’d completely forgotten about that.
Three volunteers sat on the chairs John had placed at the front of the room.
I was stunned when my legs disconnected from my brain, and walked me up to sit on the fourth chair. My face was frozen with fear. My mind was shrieking: “What the f*** do you think you’re doing?!”
But the four of us improvised a play, totally unscripted. And it was brilliant and hilarious.
That’s when I fell in love
Since then, I have studied as much improv as I can.
I spent two weeks on a Greek Island studying improv with John, and have attended three (so far) improv retreats with his troupe. I’ve done courses via the Comedy Store Players, with Dave Bourne of Sprout Ideas, and attended the Applied Improvisation Network. I did a weekend with Bill Arnett, the acclaimed teacher from Chicago. I’ve been an eager member of the audience for Whose Line Is It Anyway, ShowStoppers, and the Maydays.
It’s clear that I’m hooked.
But there is an important point to all this
The skills and techniques I’ve learned have translated into my work and life. Rather than being a planner who prepares everything to the nth degree, I have developed an unexpected spontaneity muscle that serves me well.
For example, I was asked to MC a charity dance show with 20 performances by 180 children and a few adults. There were 400 people in the audience, and it was being filmed for a CD to sell in aid of the charity. The brief was: “Introduce each act in 30 seconds – and be funny.” I was the one standing out front in the spotlight with a microphone, who would need to hold it together if anything went wrong. Pressure!
Then Hannah, one of my dance teachers, said: “Why don’t you treat it like an improv challenge?”
Of course I had my pre-prepared introductions, but instead of panicking that something would go wrong, I was in the zone, constantly looking at the stage and the audience thinking: “Come on, what are you going to give me that I can bounce off?”
I’m not saying my MCing would win any prizes, but a couple of things happened that I was able to respond to, in the moment. I felt waves of warmth from the audience, and received unexpected praise afterwards e.g. “I thought you’d be good, but I didn’t think you’d be THAT good!”
More recently, I gave a talk to local business owners, sole traders and startups. I offered to rewrite the taglines for three volunteers, on the spot. I had no idea whether I’d be able to do it – usually, it takes a couple of hours of research, probing questions and brainstorming. What’s more, I did it in character – as a ten-year-old and a strict judge, for example.
It worked better than my wildest dreams.
The audience was enlivened, I was able to draw out messages that applied to everyone, and the volunteers went away with a clearer tagline they can use immediately.
Best of all, the first volunteer was from a High Street bank. As she left the stage, she said: “I must get you in to train my team!”
Thank you, improv.
Next step is a train-the-trainer course booked for November. After that, I’ll be able to share the improv love.
Want to see me in action?
Most improv isn’t filmed, because that constrains the performance. But here I am in Greece, improvising a translation of Sophie Sandell’s Swedish massage therapist/chef. (Please forgive the poor sound.)