Six Things Improv Taught Me About Life and Business (part 1)

Improvisation is widely recognized as one of the hardest forms of performance. Whether improv sketch comedy, as popularized by SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and WHO’S LINE IS IT ANYWAY?, or musical improvisation, as showcased in jazz, the ability to improvise is a hard skill to learn. I was fortunate enough to take an Improv and Theater Games class at Wichita State University this last semester, and quickly learned that even though I had always found myself to be someone who is quick on his feet and good at making things up on the fly, there was still much to be learned.

Improv taught me a lot, but I think that there are 6 overarching lessons that Improv can teach anyone about life or business. Here are the first two.

1. Never block

One of the first things that we worked on in the class is the idea that you NEVER say no to a scene, verbally or non-verbally. Nothing kills a scene faster than when one actor says something that the other actor immediately shoots down. The basic rule of improv is that regardless of how ridiculous something is, roll with it. If the scene is that you’re a baseball player in a football field playing golf, go with it.

The lesson for life and business is almost a restatement of the old adage: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” There are times that you’re going to be offered opportunities or challenges that you weren’t expecting, and you can’t (and shouldn’t) try to avoid them. The scene mentioned above turned into one of the funniest scenes of my class’ performance, because the performers didn’t block and committed to making the most of it.

2. Don’t force it

Another one of the first mistakes that many improvers make is trying to be funny, or trying to force a scene to take the course that they want. What performers eventually realize is that being funny cannot be forced. The funniest lines come when you’re not trying to throw out punchlines, but instead just react to the action of the other performers. Same for scenes – the best scenes are those that just flow, and aren’t directed.

The lesson I took out of this is that everyone is the best when they are playing themselves. Trying to be someone else might work for awhile (and get some cheap laughs), but the most rewarding experiences and relationships will come when you are simply being yourself, and letting things happen naturally.

Check in next week for the next two lessons I learned.

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