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.