Life Is Just One Looooooong Ass Improv Set, Learning to Say Yes And
So this piece is going to be a grower. I am currently going through a 4 part series of a Yes And classes with Improvolution. As of today, I don’t aspire to be an Improv performer but after some introductory classes and reading Alan Alda’s book, “If I Understood You, Would My Face Look Like This”, I’m fascinated by the applications. I believe it can have lots of positive ripple effects in all areas of life. Hoping this make me a better Lulu. After all, our lives aren’t scripted (thank god), we’re all just living improv and I can always use some new tools.
In the past I have felt like a completely different person after embracing something new and I haven’t noted the baby steps. So this is a bit of an experiment for me. Not sure if there will be any drastic transformation or ahas in just 4 weeks but I thought it would be helpful to illuminate my ride for the next four weeks. But, of course, before I start with the classes, I’m going to give you a little background on what led me to this class. I’ll try to be succinct, but no promises.
This came up while unemployed. My contract ended in October and I was looking for a job. I hate the job search process. I don’t like being my own wingman and selling myself in interviews. It makes me feel uncomfortably braggadocious. I prefer to let my work stand for itself. As I’ve learned the uncomfortable way, networking is a critical part of the job search. I find it exhausting and inauthentic. I like networking as a form of meeting new and interesting people, when it happens organically. Forcing the networking because I am in a vulnerable position and need something, feels icky. It’s like patting my own back, it’s amazing I didn’t pull a muscle.
Perhaps worse than the emotional agony of the search, I felt like my creativity has been shriveling up like a raisin. From my experience creativity is like a muscle that will atrophy when not used, kind of like my body has from not working out but that’s a different story.
One evening, I was having a drink with two Burlesque friends after a show and someone was trying to decide whether to go to BurlyCon or not. Burlycon is an annual Burlesque gathering in Seattle where people from all over gather to take classes with Burlesque professionals and network with other performers from around the globe. She wasn’t sure if it was worth it for her financially considering the cost of the flight, hotel, event… Then she said that instead she was considering using the money for Improv classes locally. Improv, although not apples to apples in comparison to Burlesque, is most definitely a tangentially related since it is a performance art. Also in live entertainment, although your routine is planned, shit happens and you have to have improvisational skills to recover.
If I were an animation, you may have seen the light bulb pop on over my head when she mentioned improv. Inside my head I definitely heard, ding, ding ding (sound of a bell) “we may have a winner here Lulu.”
The next day, I was speaking to someone about about the idea but was scared that a class would be fiscally irresponsible while unemployed. While on the phone with her, I decided to google Improv NYC Classes.
The first thing that came up in the search feed was a free Intro to Improv class. I can afford free and it was just an hour and a half. It was very low risk and investment. I took the class and although not madly in love, I enjoyed it and left a little more inspired by the possibilities. Little did I realize that, like potato chips, just one wasn’t going to be enough.
The next step would have been to take their Level 1 8-week series. I was hesitant because of the lack of cash flow going on in my life at the moment. However, I’m not one who can ignore an itch, I’m a scratcher. So I decided to investigate other Improv schools to see their offerings. I may not be able to afford a more in depth training but perhaps I could do a sampling of Intro classes, since NYC has quite a few Improv schools and I was pretty sure that Improv schools were like ice cream. Pretty much ALL ice cream is yummy; however, we all have a favorite flavor. Some schools didn’t have the Intro class and required you to start with their Level 1 series but Improvolution did.
Definite plus that they had the Intro class, and there was also something lurking in the name that appealed to my spiritual side. I was sure that my own personal e-volution through Improv was implied in the name of the school. And that’s what I wanted; to transform myself and grow as a human being. Or maybe they meant re-volution. I’m more of a lover than a fighter but perhaps my current career and creative stagnation could use an act of a rebellion.
Aside: I word geeked out while writing this and there is the word coevolution too. And I’d say this “volution” rooted word definitely applies to Improv. In Improv, we work in teams and the members feed off of each other. There is definite co-evolvement. And as I just learned volution is a word in and of itself.
Wow did I digress. After taking the Intro class with Rebecca Studdard, performer, teacher and one of the schools co-founders, and Maggie Schweppe, instructor and performer, like turned to love and I was confident I found my preferred flavor of Improv. By having two instructors it was also like having a double dip ice cream cone, same school/brand but still different flavors. OK I’m done with the ice cream metaphors, I think.
They explained that the school teaches character-based Improv vs other schools that are plot-based. I’m guessing this is one of the reasons it resonated. I was sure that their Improvolution classes could help me with networking, interviewing and life.
After this Intro, I left in love and and feeling like Oliver, hungry for more Improv.
After researching the next morning, I was mildly discouraged to find out that their level 1 series was 10 weeks and hence even more of a financial and time commitment than the other school. Totally worth it but just wasn’t sure if I could rationalize the expense at this time. Damn, foiled again. How could the universe give me hope in one second and pull it away in the next. But no worries, fair damsel in distress, fortunately, they were beginning a new 4 week class for beginners focusing on “Yes And”, a basic tenet of Improv. YES, it cost more than an Intro, although I didn’t want any more Intros as it was time to move on to the next step, AND less than cost and time commitment than Level 1. So yes ladies and gentlemen, ding, ding, ding (there goes that bell again) we had a winner. The universe appeared to be on my side and that was easy to say “Yes And” to. See it was working already.
And that brings us to my review of the the classes.
Just the fact that Improv uses games to practice the skills is a win for me. Referring to the lessons as games makes it go from a pressure filled chore to a gleeful adventure. Pretty much, all of the Improv games we played were the same that were played in the Intro, but even as a person who likes, no yearns, to change things up, I wasn’t bored in the least. It was a new group of people which added a fresh dynamic and, may I be so braggadocious as to say, I felt like I had improved and stepped up my game. Or, more humbly and perhaps more accurately, I was a little more comfortable in this new endeavor. Confession: I referred to Burlesque before and I had performed on occasion for a few years. Improv actually scares me more than getting naked on stage. I’m not sure it’s even rational but something I thought I’d mention.
By sharing some of my favorite games, I don’t think I’m betraying any secrecy issues. I believe these games are based on the games outlined by Viola Spolin in her well known book, “Improvisation for Theater”. I even bought it but haven’t cracked the spine yet, because, on the whole, I’m more of an experiential vs book learner. Plus you need others to play with. I could recruit friends or family but by the fact that my fellow classmates also registered for this class of their own volition, they were already game for some Improv games.
Also can’t ignore the perks of having Mallory, a professional Improv performer and educator, guiding us, providing feedback and answering any ad hoc questions. Plus she was downright convivial.
Each of the games had benefits but I don’t want this blog post to turn into a complete play by play. So here are some highlights of my favorite games.
Word Game (not the actual name, but close enough as I didn’t right it down and have zero recall)
Person A says a word. Person B then has to say another word that starts with the same letter or sound that the last word ended with. And this goes around the circle. For example, if person A says the word “amuse”. Since it ends with an E, person B could say “elephant” or “zebra”, as it phonetically has the z sound at the end.
Very important to the game is eye contact between partners. This is a theme carried across all of the games. It makes a difference. It’s as if my response came out of my partner’s eyes. When the eye connection wasn’t made, it took me longer to respond since I had to think rather than react instinctively and creatively. On the NYC subways, eye contact may get you into a few scuffles, but when relating with someone personally or professionally, the benefit is a no brainer. After all, the eyes are mirror to the soul.
Of course, I also love it because I’m a word geek, if you didn’t figure that out from my volution tribute earlier. But more importantly, I love it because I had to be in the moment. I’m definitely one of those people, and I know I’m not alone, who starts to think of my reply before fully listening to what the other person is saying and in doing so misses some of the content. With this game, it was too brief for that to be a possibility. I’m also not a mind reader and couldn’t predict what word was coming my way. Each time was a surprise, like the ones that life can often give us, and I had to respond in the moment. My favorite exchange was when I gave my partner “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, definitely one of my favorite S words, and in turn he turned to his partner and said simple. Unplanned, in the moment and hilarious.
This also had flavors as you can add onto this game by adding emotions and point of view. Want to know more about emotion and point of view, let me tell you about my other favorite game, This Is a Pen
This Is a Pen
This one is a little scripted, yet we had creative liberty in the way we wanted to express ourselves. We would choose an emotion/point of view, such as, anger, excitement, fear, awe…. And use that to flavor the assigned scripting which was:
Person A would start by selecting an emotion/point of view and recite their opening line of the script expressing the emotion at a level of 10, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being the lowest and 10 the highest. Level 10 can be liberating and yet it isn’t always comfortable. Of course in a comedic improv sketch an intensity of a 10 can pack a punch but in practical applications, maybe not. However, I remember a martial arts instructor once telling me that it was easier for him to train an aggressive person to pull back than to make a meek person aggressive. So we practice at a 10 and it will be easy to downshift.
Person B would mirror/mimic A’s emotion until it was their turn to turn to the next person in the circle with a new emotion/point of view. This is a great reminder that how we say something is as important, if not more important, than what we say. The words can be as simple as “this is a pen”, but if we said it with rage vs glee, we would get a different response. And there is a sense of empowerment in acknowledging our choice in the how we do things. I’d like to play this game with some bully’s.
I’ve Bought You Blank Thank You I Always Wanted Blank
In this game we broke up into teams of 2. We each had an imaginary bag filled with an infinite number of presents. Person A: Pulls something from the bag and says, “I bought you ####” and fills in the blank. Person B pretends to physically receive the gift and responds, “Thank you, I’ve always wanted ####” And tosses it over their shoulder into imaginary garbage pit. Then you switch taking lead. This goes on until our time keeper/instructor tells us to stop
I had to take whatever was given to me, whether it be a diamond or a piece of chewed gum. Each time, I had to receive it graciously which reminds me that whether I like what life gives me or not, it’s still a gift that I can appreciate or learn from. I can choose whether to be gracious or not and what my next steps are. Not to get to get to woo woo (aka spiritual on you) but also there is no attachment. You receive it and then just toss it away like water off a duck’s back. I believe it was Buddha that said attachment leads to suffering. It also reminds me of something a meditation teacher once said to me. “A person says something cruel to us once and walks away. We are the ones who replay that statement on endless loop as we continue to rage.”
Week 1 Evaluation. Although the games were familiar I wasn’t bored at all. In fact, took pride in the fact that it was easier this time than the first and it was pleasurable. I didn’t have a major revelation but I definitely had a mood change. Without going into details about the events earlier that week, I was a bit depressed and feeling defeated. The morning of class, I had even woken up at 4 AM with a sense of angst and never fell back asleep. After class and still the next morning I felt lighter. Nothing happened to resolve the issue that caused my angst but I do believe that the freedom of play and creativity gave me the opportunity to laugh which is always great medicine. More next week.
So everyone came back and we even had new members join in. Most people may expect people to return, but I’ve signed up for series where that’s not the case. I have to say the sense of creativity continued throughout the week. I believe my raisin has miraculously been returned to a grape.
This week we did some repeat and some new. Always building on the listening, rhythm, eye contact & teamwork. We also focused on commitment to what we were saying. That was definitely demonstrated in:
We paired up in teams of two. We took turns. Person A would speak for two minutes about themselves, it could be anything. Person B could not respond but only listen. We switched. And then to our surprise, we had to recite back what we heard and even if we weren’t sure we were to pretend we were. For me this exercise was difficult because I don’t want to just be spoken to I want a conversation. Maybe some control issues in that I wanted to lead my partner into areas that interested me versus allowing him to tell his story. I had questions. A little ashamedly the questions going on in my head may have kept me from retaining the details. That could be age too. I wish I focused on remembering the details. I did get the essence, but this just reinforced what I knew which is I need to work on my listening skills.
I’ve done this before in none performing. With a partner you take turns leading movement with your partner following you. Then they take the lead. Then no one takes the lead. What was interesting in this for me is that I preferred to follow or be part of not taking the lead. Which is odd for me as I like a little control. The leader was supposed to do the movements slowly so who was leading was less perceptible and that may have been a reason I didn’t like being the leader as slow is not my natural speed. Although I didn’t have any problem moving slowly when following. It felt more important for me to be a good team mate and supportive. When you mirror, without mimicking, people tend to be more receptive and, conversely, feel understood.
The Ministers Cat
This may be hard to explain. So while we we were maintaining a rhythm by clapping our hands on our thighs, followed by clapping our hands, followed by snapping our left hand and then our right hand, we had to say the ministers cat is a _______ cat. We went around the circle with the first one starting with A, e.g. the ministers cat is an agile cat. The next person in the circle would use a b word, e.g., the ministers gate is a bodacious cat. We’d proceed following the alphabet, which should be easy because we’ve known it by heart for a while. Not so easy. Also if the person before you slipped up and used the wrong letter, you needed to follow as if it was correct. We needed to Yes And and not perform an autocorrect. It meant you really had to listen and couldn’t figure out your letter in advance because you never knew. Also much kinder than pointing out a persons mistake.
We also did a similar exercise with pairing of words while doing the hand rhythm thing. It was not organic in the least.
It felt like my left/analytic brain controlling the rhythm and my right/creative brain controlling the words were having a tug of war. Perhaps with enough practice they could become better friends, hence why I am in class.
Week 2 Summary
Still in love with Improv. In fact, since I got a job in the last week, I’ve decided to commit to the 10 week Level 1 class. There will be a slight overlap between this class and the Level 1 so yes, I’m all in on Improv. Still not sure I want to perform Improv, but I said this about Polarity Healing, Shamanism and Burlesque…we shall see.
But don’t fret in terms of blogging, I’m going to stop this experiment after Yes And so as not to turn this into the Odyssey. I wish I could say that Improv helped me nail the job, but it was really just a drawn out process. That being said, I did have another networking call during the week and I felt far more comfortable than before Improv. Also interesting aside. I’ll be starting Level 1 on the same day I start my new job. Coincidence I think not. Well maybe it is but I like to see everything as a sign.
I missed this week because I had a prior commitment which I had miswritten down in my calendar. Things I will say is that there were a few networking/social situations that popped up and normally they would have been more burdensome or boring. They were not. Perhaps Improv is having an effect. Looking forward to Week 4.