On one of my last days in LA, I took an improv comedy class. I've been intrigued by the thought of taking a class like this for a while, ever since a friend in the film industry told me at a party, out of the blue: "You'd be good at improv." I have no idea why she said it; I hadn’t been particularly funny or quick or witty in the conversations that evening. But I found myself wanting to at least try it. I liked the idea of learning how to think better on my feet, trust my instincts, and make split-second decisions (which I’m generally terrible at). Plus, have you ever been to an improv show? It just looks like so much fun.
While I feel like I've got pretty good instincts, I have a hard time trusting them in the moment. I’ll take note of them, like passing thoughts, and then proceed to weigh and scrutinize whatever the thing is that needs deciding...looking at it from every angle...and considering every available piece of information that could factor into my eventual decision, in order to make The Best Possible Choice. But then, when it’s all said and done, I usually end up going with what I felt in my gut in the first place.
(Cue #2 on my Rules for the Journey: “Think, but not too much.”)
So, in the months leading up to the current 12 Places venture, I knew that this tendency would get provoked. I knew I’d be pushed into deciding things more quickly, simply because there are just so many decisions to be made when you’re constantly navigating a new environment. I actually looked forward to this aspect of the journey; it felt like an experiment and a challenge: Can I learn how to be a quicker — and, hopefully better — decision-maker by putting myself in a situation that forces me to make lots and lots of decisions? Will I persist in my typical 360-degree consideration of each choice, before succumbing to decision exhaustion? Or will I find some freedom in being forced to make quick decisions — in just picking something and going with it?
I have found myself thinking more than once: "This whole year feels like improv." And it does. Life is always and only improv, is it not? We take what comes at us, and we figure out what to do with it.
This, my friends, is how I found myself in Improv Comedy 101.
And what better place to take an improv class than LA, land of the silver screen and acting classes on every corner? It seemed like the perfect comfort-zone-stretching activity for a girl who has never been especially eager to be on a stage, or performing in front of a bunch of people (gah, the pressure! the spotlights! the crowds!).
But...courage over fear, right? Game on.
I arrived at 10707 Magnolia Street in North Hollywood on a Tuesday evening, parked, and then tried unsuccessfully to open the front door. (Perfect. Off to a great start.) A woman inside got up from her chair, cracked the door and said simply, “Improv? Go on down the alley, it’s in the back. You’ll see it.” The alley opened up to a dimly lit parking lot, a low building, and a sign: Actors Improv Studio. I turned the knob and stepped into a narrow, carpeted room with a dozen chairs clustered at the back and walls papered with 1990s comedy club posters. At the front of the room was a red velvet stage curtain, and an unpretentious open area lit by four stage lights.
“You must be Erin,” the instructor called from the back of the room as I joined the nine others who were already seated, chatting or eating Red Vines or checking their phones. Clearly, I was the new girl — most of the others were regulars in this class, it turns out, which is offered every week. A woman with braids and sparkling eyes who was sitting on my left leaned toward me and held up two fingers. “It’s only my second time here,” she offered, grinning. “I have no idea what I’m doing, either.”
“Okay, everybody up,” said the instructor, a lean, middle-aged guy named Bill with an expressive face and close-cropped brown curls. “Move through the space.” (I later discovered, after a little research that I probably should have done at the beginning, that Bill is Bill Applebaum, founder of the studio and a Second City Chicago alum.)
There was no introduction, no “welcome to improv class,” no “here’s a basic framework,” no “this is what we’re going to do tonight.” Just...“get up and move through the space.” (Um, what does that even mean?) Everyone else stood up and stepped onto the tiny stage area, then started walking around it, weaving in and out, some waving their arms or stomping their feet, like a class of kindergarteners just let out for recess. I followed them, walking and flopping my arms around awkwardly. We're just getting loosened up, I guessed. Getting used to being on stage.
After a few Charades-like warm-up drills, we moved on to a series of fast-paced spoken exercises (still with little or no explanation from Bill). I quickly became a deer in the headlights, blank-faced and dry-throated, totally out of my element. I still had no idea what we were doing or what the rules of this whole improv game were, and I was annoyed that nobody was telling me. But then I realized: this is kind of perfect, isn’t it? It’s an improv class. The whole point of improv is that you start with little to no information, and you’ve got to figure things out as you go along, in real time. You figure out what the situation is by being in it, by responding to what you see and hear, and responding to what others say and do — and then responding again. And it is the process of figuring it out that builds the scene. It’s a continuous unfolding exchange; a dance of input and response. It’s not about memorizing or following rules; it’s about improvising in the moment based on whatever little information you have: taking it and doing something with it, and then continuing to pivot and respond as more new information presents itself. You don’t have time to think. If you try to think ahead or plan something in advance, it will flop.
Okay, I thought. Here we go. This is what I’m here for, right? To improvise.
"Improv is about character change. The characters in a scene must experience some type of change for the scene to be interesting. Characters need to go on journeys, be altered by revelations, experience the ramifications of their choices and be moved by emotional moments."
- David Alger
The three-hour class rolled on, and I could feel myself getting more comfortable. Even though every single exercise was new to me, and I had no map to speak of, I got used to just being there in the moment, entirely unprepared, and that being okay. I loosened up. I began saying whatever came to mind, without weighing or filtering it first. I could see a transformation in my fellow students, as well: as they relaxed, they got better. Everyone became funnier, and more aware; quicker, and more themselves. By the end of the night, we were doing entire two-person improv scenes on stage, under the lights — and many of those scenes were really funny. Impressively good, I thought, for a roomful of non-actors and definite amateurs.
As humans, facing the unknown usually freaks us out, so we try to avoid it. Or at least, we avoid thinking about it. The thing about improv that attracted me is actually the same thing that freaks me out: it's choosing to put myself, willingly, into a situation where unknowns will be thrown at me and I have to respond. There’s no passing, no “let me think about it,” no procrastinating or prolonged decision-making allowed. You've got to respond, in the moment, or the scene doesn’t go on. If you don’t respond (and quickly), the conversation dies. The story ends, right there.
But when you do respond? More often than not — I was surprised how often — certain fantastic and rather beautiful things happen. There's synergy, and epiphanies, and punch lines that land when you weren't even looking. “This is the joy of discovery,” Bill told us, in a moment that caught me with the weight of a truth not confined to the comedic. “This is what we delight in.”
See, the scene keeps changing...and for the actors in a scene, it’s a continual discovery of that change; layers of new information adding on to one another. It is, more than anything else, a discovery of the relationships between the people on stage. And here’s why we delight in it: because it can go anywhere. The fact that the scene can go anywhere, and that not even the players themselves know where it will go — this is what makes it fun to play as actors, and it’s what makes it interesting to us as humans. It’s not only fun for the audience to watch, it’s fun for us to discover. Us, the ones in the moment. The ones living it.
Here's something else I learned: as an improv performer, you’re actually not the one telling the story. Or, more to the point: you're not steering the story. You’re simply discovering, and letting the audience in on your process of discovery. And that's where the story really happens — the story takes shape in each person in the audience, as they connect with and respond to what you've discovered. It reminds me of something Sylvia Plath once said about poetry: “Once a poem is made available to the public, the right of interpretation belongs to the reader."
When I think about this year, this makes a lot of sense to me, and it’s kind of a relief. I'm now in the fourth month of this project, half a world away in Cape Town, South Africa; and I still don’t entirely know what I’m doing. I'm not quite sure what story I’m telling. But, I suppose that’s to be expected — it’s really hard to tell a story when you’re in the middle of it, after all.
So, what if I made my goal simply to discover? To let the story tell itself, as the scene unfolds?
I think I can do that. At least, I'm sure going to try.
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