I’ve been improvising and teaching improv for a long time. I won’t bore anyone with the number of years because ultimately that does not matter. I don’t believe your ability to improvise comes in a quantifiable form, but rather by simply doing.
I live by the theory that the work of improvisation is more important than all else, by which I mean it’s even more important than me. If I allow my ego to be involved in the work in any way, I am doing the work a disservice by thinking that I am in control of how my time on stage will turn out, when the opposite is actually much more satisfying. When I play, I want to remove myself from the situation and allow the work to flow through me. It has taken a long time to get to this place, but it is very achievable and very rewarding when you do.
When I first started improvising, I wanted to be funny… Like really. All the time. My entire existence was wrapped up in being funny. My thought was that if I wasn’t funny, I was failing as a human being. This desire to be funny constantly became a method in which I would compare myself to others on and off stage, never feeling good enough or worthy if I did not have ALL of the attention in the room because I was not the funniest. That, my friend, is a lot of energy and ultimately a lot of sadness rolled into a ball waiting to become a tumor.
I started experiencing bouts of depression when not on stage and wondered if there was more to be examined in terms of how I expressed myself instead of being “on” all the time. I began to see that being on and being the center of attention is not only tiring, it subsequently keeps people at a distance instead of pulling them toward you, when what the funny person wants is to be loved, to belong.
After teaching improv for many years, I have noticed that same spark in others when they first find the craft. There are lots of jokes and funny-funny times that happen amongst newbies, which is simply what I’ve come to recognize as the beginning phase of development as an improviser. We enter thinking love is gained through how many laughs per minute (LPMs) we can attain from an audience or from our peers. We can get a lot of mileage out of this way of thinking in the beginning because it gives us friends, it gets our names mentioned in what we consider higher-level improviser circles and usually gets us onto house teams. We feel we have made it. Who could ask for anything more?
There is more. There is so much more. The work is more than any one of us. When we allow ourselves to settle into the belief that being funny is all there is, our ego is pleased. However, what has ultimately brought us to improv is our heart. When truly connected to the work, our hearts are opened as we are introduced to the purest forms of ourselves we could possibly be. By allowing our heart to guide us through this craft, by exploring new avenues, playing with new or different people that aren’t from our normal circles, we learn to expand ourselves for the sake of what the work is here to teach us as individuals.
When I hear of others bad-mouthing each other for the sake of their improv group being better than another, or the idea that long form is better than short form, or this theater is better than that one, I am truly saddened. There must be some levity brought to looking at this way of thinking. This territorial idea that I’m better than you at playing make-believe is absurd. For as much as I love improv and hold it in high regard, I also know that just because I do a good scene, starving children in Africa will still die.
I invite you to allow the work to be from your heart today. Let it move through you so that you may be the catalyst it deserves you to be. The ego can take a break. Trust me, for the sake of our work’s growth, the ego should rest.
“Improvisation is not just cleverness– it’s an actor living his life onstage.”