For years I’ve contemplated taking an improv course for a number of reasons—namely, to step outside my comfort zone—and over the weekend, I finally tried it by taking a free two-hour intro to improv class. It both was and wasn’t what I was expecting, and I mean each of those in a good way.
When I stepped out of the elevator onto the floor where the classes were held, my gut reaction was that I felt so out of my element. The first thing I overheard was a class in progress involving someone talking to a sergeant, and I also heard a lot of laughter. I sat in the hallway with a bunch of other people waiting for their classes, all talking excitedly, while I kept an eye out for other newcomers who’d signed up for the free intro class.
Admittedly, I’ve always thought of improv as something that looks like a lot of fun but also intimidating, mostly because I hate being the center of attention, and I hardly consider myself a performer. Granted, I was in drama club in elementary and middle school, and I took part in an annual spirit competition at my high school, but in both cases, they involved a lot of rehearsing rather than coming up with stuff on the spot. Nevertheless, I made a promise to myself before I got there that I’d dive right in by not holding back and not being afraid. I’m so happy I did as I found it to be an immensely enjoyable learning experience.
Our instructor began by telling us she was going to briefly leave the room, and while she was gone, we had to become the best of friends. We all got up and started introducing ourselves. I shook people’s hands and asked them if this was their first time trying improv, like it was for me. Everyone but one person I spoke to said yes. The one girl who’d tried improv before said that she’d taken a week-long intensive course and that this was her second time taking a free class. She said she wanted to try it with a different instructor to learn from a new teaching method. Another person I spoke to remarked that it felt like the first day of school with all of us not knowing each other and being new to the experience. I agreed and mentioned how I was both nervous yet excited since I honestly didn’t know what to expect. Another person said she was told improv was like playing and being a kid again, and I hadn’t even considered it from that perspective before. Having tried it now, I definitely agree.
When our instructor returned, we all formed a circle and played a few icebreaker games, which took me back to college freshman orientation in which we did similar team-building, get-to-know-each-other types of activities. It also reminded me of various exercises we had to do as part of a leadership certificate program I took in college, all about building confidence.
The first game we played was a race car game that involved us making noises like “VROOM!” while turning an invisible steering wheel or “SCREECH!” while pressing down on imaginary brakes, plus a few other added elements to keep us on our toes. Next, we went around the circle and each said our name paired with a unique motion we made up, and everyone else had to copy it. After that, we had to re-do our motion and then do our best to remember another person’s name and re-enact their motion.
Then we took turns pairing off by stepping into the circle and performing outrageously silly moves while making bizarre sounds, and it ended with all of us spinning around and making what I can only describe as non-human noises. Afterward, our teacher asked us how we felt while we were doing those moves, and I said “freeing.” Other words people used to describe the experience were “inclusive,” “togetherness” and “cooperation.” Our instructor assured us that that’s what improv is all about: teamwork and trusting one another and being vulnerable together.
Next, she briefed us on the only thing I personally knew about improv prior to taking the class, which is the concept of “yes, and.” What I didn’t know about it, however, is that it’s more than accepting what the person says and building off of it, but rather, it’s about accepting the reality of a scene. She gave an example that if a character says to go jump off a bridge, it doesn’t mean your character has to literally say yes to that and leave the scene. Instead, it’s about acknowledging that there’s a bridge and that the character who said that is angry with your character, so the next step would be to come up with a reason for that motivation and take it from there.
Our next exercise was to rant about a pet peeve. There were a total of 19 of us in the class, so we split up into two groups. As part of my promise to myself to dive in, I got up right away to be in the first group. We all stood in a line and, as luck would have it, our instructor pointed to me to kick it off, so I began ranting about someone loudly talking on a cell phone. Then she pointed to someone else and they started their rant, then another person and another, until she eventually pointed back to me and I continued my rant, before she pointed to someone else to continue theirs. As she explained, she was our pet peeve conductor, and by the end we were an orchestra all ranting at once. Then the second group went up and did the same. Other pet peeves people ranted about included crowded subways, distracted people staring at their phones, tourists, power handshakes and having to get up and meet a delivery person in the lobby to get your Uber Eats. Afterward, the instructor pointed out that while some of the pet peeves were small, we still laughed because they were relatable, and she highlighted the importance of truth in comedy.
Then it was time for us to perform scenes together in two groups which were then broken into smaller groups. Again, I jumped in to try it out first, and coincidentally, mine was the first group to go. I was with two other people in my scene, and we all took turns acting out scenes. The scenario was that we were at a cocktail party, and our one prompt we all had to incorporate into the scene was “cloud.” It felt a little daunting to me at first trying to come up with what to say off the top of my head, especially knowing everyone was watching, but I quickly realized it was more a matter of listening to your scene partners and reacting to what they’ve said to push the scene forward. Afterward, when our instructor asked us to share our thoughts on the scenes, I commented how I found it cool that each group took the prompt of cloud and had a different interpretation. One of my scene partners made a remark about cloud-like pillows, while another group talked about the iPhone cloud.
That was all in the first hour of the class, and it flew by. For the second hour, we each paired up and acted out a different scene with varying motivations. I went second with my scene partner, the girl who’d done improv before, and we exchanged business cards afterward. Our setup was that we were on an airplane going on vacation, and we had to come up with where we were going and what our relationship was. I jumped in with the first line to establish the scene by asking, “Are you excited for your last hurrah before you get married?” I became the motherly older sister letting my younger sister know that after this Vegas trip, she’ll have to get all the partying out of her system and settle down. Meanwhile, she told my character that I’ll have to not be so motherly and that I should let loose on this bachelorette trip. I agreed and gave a backstory about how my character had a failed marriage with a lawyer and that we’d have to hit up a strip club so I could have a fling with a new guy.
Overall, I found my first improv class to be a lot of fun and a good way to build camaraderie. Also, while watching other people’s scenes, I noticed the biggest reactions came from people dropping new and surprising information along the way to add backstory to the characters’ relationships and spice up the scene. For instance, one scene involved two people both wanting to pay the check for their dinner, and the guy jumped in right away saying that since his friend had just gotten out of jail he should let him pay for the check. In another scene, a boss had to fire her employee, and at one point the employee said the two of them had been through so much since he’d married her sister. Another scene had one person trying to ask her friend if she could date her ex, and the friend casually mentioned how it’s awkward since they’re all roommates. It’s all about finding interesting ways to reveal information and add to the world you’re creating in the moment.
I’m happy I finally tried improv, and I’m looking into signing up for a level one class, so I’m excited to see where that goes. I definitely recommend trying it because you just may surprise yourself with how much fun you’ll have.