I recently began a beginner's Intro to Improvisation course. As someone who's battled with social anxiety for literally decades, I didn't think I'd ever actually go through with it. But, fast-forward seven weeks and we're fast approaching our last session, and I don't want it to end! Here are the most valuable things I've learned.
1) I can do something that scares me.
For so long I've been used to avoiding situations that make me anxious, but now I think I’m more likely to give something a go if I want to do it and what's holding me back is that I'm scared. Through the fast few weeks I seen that even if an activity or game seems horrendous or terrifying to start with, I can still do it. (And every time it's turned out fun.)
2) You can't fail if you give it a try*.
This sounds LAME AF and I've never really understood the sentiment until now. In the earliest weeks of the course, I was finding it hard to put myself out there and join in with new games, sometimes being a more reserved member of the team because I was concerned with embarrassing myself (literally one of my worst fears to date.) However, the only times I was kicking myself is on the couple of occasions I didn't contribute to something new, or, over thought my ideas too much. I left the class feeling much better and having learned more if I jumped in without giving myself time to think. OK, so even if my ideas weren't amazing, I still gave it a go and had something to build on. The only "mistake" you can make is not trying.
*Unless maybe in a SATs exam.**
**Not even then.
3) It's fun to look silly sometimes.
Some of the games and work I've done in my first experience of improv have been so absurd and odd (amazing nonetheless). If you'd have told me before joining, I'd be doing the exact type of thing I avoided in drama class at high school, now, I'd have run a mile. HOWEVER! It turns out its actually really fun if everyone else is doing the same thing! Whether you're playing dutch clapping or I'm a Whisk (brilliant game) or pretending to be a Samurai, when your pretending as a collective, it's a wonderful thing.
4) Making a tit out of yourself isn't the end of the world.
A.KA. How to embrace "mistakes"!
If you say or do something unexpected when improvising, it's totally fine! Because as a group, you always support each others' ideas and justify them. This has been really helpful to me with the whole fear of looking stupid. If something happens in public or work or anywhere where I'd usually find it excruciatingly cringeworthy, improv has made it easier for me to laugh about things and not take everything so seriously. I tripped over spectacularly the other day and once I'd dusted myself off —took a well deserved bow, much to the amusement of myself and concerned bystanders. It helped so much! And I would never have reacted like that without learning about self-respect and embracing mistakes from improv.
5) How to Be a Better Listener
Right from the basics of keeping eye contact and picking up on non-verbal queues, to other techniques as we learned more about building relationships, improv has been fantastic at helping me become more present in situations, and on top of that, how to pay better attention to what others are saying—listening, not just waiting for my turn to talk.
6) Humour comes naturally.
A lot of us think the key to improv is being funny (I used to be guilty of this)—that's not the case! As someone who's default defence mechanism is sarcasm, this was tricky for me. I saw how successful teammates' scenes were because of how natural they seemed. Being honest and open was difficult for me because I really didn't like the idea of using any truth from my life. I felt like if I did that somehow people would be able to read my mind or think I was weird (not in a bad way) or not get what I was doing.
It turns out that the biggest laughs happen when you're not even trying to be amusing. The scenes I've done that left people chuckling most were the ones I was playing totally straight—only thinking about what the person opposite me was saying and nooothinnnng else—and the humour just develops. (IT'S WAY MORE AWESOME THAT WAY TOO.)
7) How to Be Less Controlling
My main way of dealing with anxiety is trying to control e v e r y t h i n g I can. Because unpredictability is mega-terrifying. Well, as soon as I started improv, there was no room for that. Being taught to always accept someone else's idea and build on it really showed me how to let go of my own ways of thinking. With improv, you're constantly having to adapt yourself to the changing situation, and doing this has shown me how to accommodate other people's ideas more, but more importantly, not be afraid to go in a completely different direction to what I had imagined. This has helped at work too, making me more aware of when I'm struggling to drop my preconceptions and when I should incorporate other people's ideas.
8) How to Be Humble
I think improv is also really humbling. I am a perfectionist in a lot of areas of my life, but with improvising, it’s not about being the best, its about doing your best by helping out your team and making them look good. So, if your team mates look GREAT— that's because you're doing a good job & vice versa.
Thank you to my wonderful teacher and team of fellow first time improvisers. It's been a superb journey, I've learned how to trust more, how to have more confidence in my ideas, and not only how to be better at improvising, but more, how to be better at life.