Girl Talk: What I Learned From Sucking At Improv

A couple years ago I was feeling lost. I had graduated college, had some money saved up, and I wanted to try something new. I’d been writing a humorous fashion blog for awhile and I’d been toying with the idea of taking the leap from writing funny things to performing funny things. Tina Fey has always been a huge inspiration for me and I remember reading an interview about how improv had changed her life and thinking, Hey, maybe improv would change my life too. I looked up Tina Fey’s bio on Wikipedia and found out she studied improv at The Second City, an acting school and theater in Chicago where many “Saturday Night Live” alums got their start. So I signed up a for a week-long immersion improv class and I bought a plane ticket to Chicago.

A little backstory: I’m a perfectionist. For most of my life I’ve worked hard to get better at things I’m already good at, and I’ve quickly abandoned any pursuits for which I don’t show a natural and immediate aptitude. This is why I’ve never learned French, and I’ve played hacky sack exactly once in my life. In high school I’d floated around the periphery of the drama department, designing a couple posters and painting a pickle barrel to resemble a Ming vase, but I’d never been on stage. Improv would be totally new experience for me, but secretly, I assumed I would be good at it because I’m generally pretty good at making people laugh. In my mind, being funny meant I would be good at improv.

And then I got to Chicago and something really funny happened: I sucked at improv.

There were about 20 people in my class, of all ages and all walks of life. Some had extensive backgrounds in acting and standup comedy, others were first-timers like me. We were all funny people, and we were eager to be funny, but as our teacher laid out the basics, it became obvious that improv is not necessarily about being funny, it’s about creating a reality with someone else. It’s about two people standing on an empty stage, one person saying “We are exploring the ocean in a submarine,” the other person replying, “Yes, and we’ve sprung a leak,” and so on and so forth. If that reality ends up being funny, that’s great, but if one person is trying too hard to be funny, it betrays that shared reality, and the scene will crumble.

In order to conjure a scene out of nothing, you have to completely surrender to the moment. You never know what’s coming next. This is the magic of improv, and it was the scariest thing in the world for a perfectionist control freak like me. Every exercise challenged us to let go of control and go with the flow. We’d have to step out in front of the class with a partner and pretend we were flirting in a bookstore, or maybe carry on an entire conversation using only questions. I’d get so freaked out by the immediacy of it that I would think of clever lines beforehand and try to fit them into whatever scene unfolded on stage. Improv requires you to stay in the present, which was so terrifying to me that I basically cheated my way through the first half of the week.

The turning point for me was a scene one of the other students did with our teacher. The student was an older woman who been pretty quiet so far–she had participated in every activity but in this class full of clowns she had faded into the background. When it was her turn, she sat down on the floor next to the teacher and they started to create a scene together where they were sitting around a campfire, just talking. She didn’t try to be funny. Nobody laughed. And it was absolutely magical.

When I saw this woman being so present in the moment, and the way it created a genuine interaction between two characters–two people–I was inspired. Not only was it the most successful scene of the whole week, it changed my approach to improv and to life: I realized you can’t control the moment, and it’s a waste of time to try. For the rest of the week I stopped trying to come up with the perfect punchline. A few of my scenes were funny. A lot of them weren’t. The major difference? I was really listening to my scene partners, and living in our shared reality instead of trying to set myself up for a great line. I was diving into an experience knowing full well that I wouldn’t be the best at it. I was willing to fail.

That improv class changed my life, but not in the ways I expected. I saw my life as a scene, and sure, it had a few great lines, but if I didn’t release my perfectionist grip, it was going to get really stale, really fast. I don’t walk away from challenging experiences anymore; I run at them full speed, and sometimes I fall on my face. And you know what? I’ve learned to love the feeling of that fall, because if you don’t live in the moment, you’re not really living.