Learning to improvise

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Seaport VillageIn December I received the great gift of a 7-week beginner improv acting class, which I've just completed this past week.  I'd apparently remarked casually several times in front of Kelly that it might be fun to take an acting class some day, and knowing me as she does around experiences that might be outside my comfort zone, she took matters into her own hands to see that it might actually happen instead of just being talked about.

And outside my comfort zone it was, but also incredibly enjoyable.

The instructor Kevin (a professional actor and playwright in his own regard) has a background that includes the Second City improv comedy theater in Chicago, and so he made heavy use of Viola Spolin's techniques for teaching improv.  There were lots of exercises and games designed to train us how to create an environment with only our bodies and maybe the occasional folding chair, how to show a character's age, social status, mood, origin, destination and other qualities by showing instead of telling, and how to build simple objects or circumstances into a full-fledged scene.  We didn't really start using dialog until the last few classes; building the foundation of movement and environment had to come first.

Beyond the parts that seemed a challenge for most people in the class ("stand in the center of the group and start boldly singing something until someone relieves you" or "create a character with a happy left leg"), I found myself acutely aware of the stiffness I need to shake off when it comes to graceful physical expression.  It's one thing for this here introvert to be able to think of something funny or to make a funny face or motion in the caring presence of friends or loved ones, but it's another matter entirely to think of funny things to say to an acting partner I don't know very well, living fully and vulnerably into the quirky physicality of a character invented only seconds ago while also not losing track of where I set down the invisible beer mug I was just drinking out of.  Wow!

But I really enjoyed those challenges, and have new appreciation for what any actor - and especially improv actors - have to juggle in their work.  And the rule that successful improv is about always confidently saying "yes" to the situation and then building on it seems to have application well beyond the realm of acting - what would it mean for your business meetings, relationship conversations or exchanges with strangers if you were always forced to respond to your discussion parter by saying "yes, and..." instead of "no..." or "but..."?

I can't claim that this learning experience made me an actor or even a better comedy improviser, but it did help me learn some things about myself and how I relate to others in the physical world that I know will be valuable to me.  I also met some funny, talented people and had a great time doing something very different (thanks Kelly).  And if anyone needs help visualizing how a man with springs for legs acts in a fitness center while talking to another man who weighs 500 pounds, I'm your guy.

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