Improv Your Life

by Christina Pyrgaki

Did you know that there is a Tri-Institutional improv group? Well, there is. A bunch of witty, quirky, and overall lovable improvers gather every Tuesday in the Caspary music room and, for an hour and a half, improvise their way out of their everyday life and into an imaginary, irrational world of endless possibilities. But what is improv anyway?

Credit: Joanna Loureiro.

The origins of improvisational theater, improv for short, can be traced back to the Commedia dell’Arte groups that roamed Europe in the sixteenth century and performed unplanned theater routines in the streets. The revival of this odd form of theater, with no script to direct the action, started in the early 1920s in Chicago when Viola Spolin, a recreational director, developed games to introduce theater to immigrant children. She developed a number of structures that bypassed any resistance a child might have and organically led children to perform a theatrical task without being directly told what to do. Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, and David Shepherd expanded on some of Spolin’s methods and developed a number of new ones. The outcome of their project was the “Compass Theater” that eventually evolved into “Second City.” Alumni of these two groups are the virtual founders of sketch comedy in America in the last half of the twentieth century and include, among others, John Belushi and Joan Rivers. Improv has evolved since the 1920s and it is definitely not a kid’s training in theater anymore.

It is still, however, a great way to reconnect with the child in you. The warm-up games in the beginning of improv meetings are not very different from the games children play in a circle in the school backyard, and the short scenes performed are not that far from our childhood make-believe games. Imagination, creativity, and a strong sense of humor are all necessary components of a successful improvisation session, but the key element is acceptance. Acceptance—saying “yes”—is the energy that fuels improv. In order to build a scene, you need to accept a suggestion, build on it and allow the scene to progress. By denying the others’ premises on stage (what is called “blocking” in improv lingo) not only do you disrespect your fellow improver, but you also barricade the progress of the scene, and the scene dies. This rule applies off-stage as much as it does on-stage. Accepting and building on something, whether that is a business project, a science project, or a life plan, can be a much faster and more productive way to successfully move forward than abolishing and building from scratch. Not that there aren’t times in life whenabolishing and building from scratch are necessary, but those instances are few and far between and definitely more painful to go through.

Credit: Joanna Loureiro.

For the last three decades, improv theater has claimed a number of unlikely fans among the upper management casts of the corporate and business world. Big corporations have been hiring improv performers to give seminars to their employees. Companies such as American Express and Harley Davidson, and even government agencies such as the postal service, are using improv seminars as away to improve their employees’ public speaking performance and to foster team spirit, creativity, and thinking outside the box. As Patricia Ryan Madson, Stanford professor, noted in a New York Times article just a few years back: “Executives and engineers and people in transition are looking for support in saying yes to their own voice. Often, the systems we put in place to keep us secure are keeping us from our more creative selves.”

We are used to hearing the term improv paired with comedy, but in all honesty that is not the way I view improv. Not to say that improv cannot be funny, because it can, when it is done right by people embracing its rules; but as I will shortly explain, improv is not easy and neither is getting laughs from it. Improv is more of an exercise  in ego control, self-discipline, and teamwork, an exercise that can drastically change your perspective on life. Stephen Colbert said in a commencement address a few years back: “Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say ‘yes.’ And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say ‘yes’ back.” This statement truly captures the essence of improv and draws a parallel that, to me at least, was completely new and, I dare say, life-changing. Life is nothing short of an improv performance; the more effectively you can think on your feet, the better you play along with others, and the more fun you will have in the process. We tend to think of our lives as our own little plays, in which the protagonist has control over the script, but that is not really the case. As Gaius Petronius Arbiter (c. 27 – 66 AD) very eloquently put it, quod fere totus mundus exerceat histrionem (“because almost the whole world are actors.”) The play is unscripted and you share the stage with other actors, some of whom you like, some of whom you do not, and the rest you could not care less about. The fact of the matter, however, is that you are in the same scene as them and you have the option to either play nice, or pout because you do not get your way. In the latter case, the scene will either go on without you, or if you are particularly good at being difficult, it will die. There is no better way to test how much of a team player someone is than making them stand up on an improv stage and having them build a scene with others. Building a scene requires overcoming your ego and accepting your fellow improvers’ suggestions. When the direction of the scene is not the one you wanted it to be, you need to let go and not let the fact that you did not get your way interfere with your enthusiasm. You not only have to accept the suggestion, but you have to build on it, and give it back improved, more detailed, with the same passion that you would your own idea. Improv, however, is not about being submissive and letting others assume the role of the leader; you need to work with others and create something enjoyable so that it’s worth being part of it. This is a lot harder than one might think, as it requires discipline, respect towards your fellow improver, and faith in their ideas.

According to Creative Engineering, a company that offers improv training for businesses, the purpose of improv is to give people a task to complete within an unpredictable or unplanned framework. Well, if that is true, improv could definitely teach me a thing or two about how to improve my life, both on a personal and professional level! How about you?

For more information on the Tri-I improv group, contact:


December 2012

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