Recently, I attended a big festival for improvisational comedy and met a wide variety of improv comedians and actors. Living abroad, I’d never had the opportunity to meet this many in one place (I’m not situated in New York, Chicago, or LA, where improv oozes over everything), and having a cornucopia of talent surrounding me, I came to a couple conclusions. One, that improv for three straight days can melt most human brains, and also, that improvisers are most likely the friendliest artists, because the form demands support and camaraderie, and a literal pile of trust. Some of the best performances came from stage pictures that, for the conventional human, would be highly uncomfortable (imagine having wet fingers stuck in your ears while you are playing a statue; ImprovBoston is ridiculously rad).
So that’s why I’m beginning this piece on why you should think twice about improv comedy as a hobby or life plan. In truth, there are fewer things more thrilling and entertaining, but few art forms demand such versatility with your fellow human performer. Generally you are not paid, and have no warning if another player wants to pretend to make passionate love to you in front of 15-200 people. You really have to trust and love your cast and improv colleagues to put on the best show possible; any second guessing or ego massaging can be deadly to your life as an improviser. Because, when all is said and done, being a good improviser is dedicating your heart and soul to not just the craft but all the people with whom you wish to practice the craft.
So it’s not for everyone. Sadly, no matter how fun it is, you often have to give up your own ideas for the good of the collective, and that’s difficult for some folks. The show and group success always come first.
If you can let go of the day (or life) you’ve been having and put yourself totally at the mercy of spontaneous generation, then by all means jump up on that stage. I’m an improviser because really I’m curious to see what will come out of the cast’s collective madness next. I’m constantly excited to keep heightening the ridiculousness of the games we play and the stories we create, knowing they’ll have to be grounded in visceral and emotional reality before spinning off into anti-comedic obscurity. It’s a vocation of energetic but meditative play, where any negativity gets haphazardly washed away.
But again, be wary my Internet friends. I read in a basic improv textbook once that improv in particular attracts people who wish to work out emotions and problematic pieces of their internal workings. I have the utmost respect for troubled folks, but improv is not actually therapeutic by a certain definition because it’s not about the players, but the group success. Going into improv with a personal agenda is tricky because that underlying personal beef will make it harder for you to simply play and have a good time creating universes with others. A better idea is to leave improv until you can leave your personality at the door and open up, or convert a bad day or week, etc., into kinetic energy that will help push the scenes and stories forward. Like meditation, improv is not designed to fix people, but give them a good show, and an awareness of the infinite possibilities at their creative fingertips. You can be a miserable slob of a human, but still be a fantastic improviser. I should know, Internet friends! So, improvise and enjoy, but at your own risk.