I signed up for improv class this fall because Andy told me to.
We were standing outside the Chinese Museum in Melbourne, and I was telling Andy how impressed I was by the courage and commitment I’d seen from performer after performer at the comedy festival. There was no backing out, breaking character, or winking at the audience to say, it’s okay if you don’t laugh because I think this is kinda dumb anyway. It was daring and vulnerable and I was realizing that it was a big reason the shows I was seeing were funny.
About a year prior, I had discovered Australian comedy podcasts. The first one I found was called Plumbing the Death Star. On an episode asking, “How would you hide the one ring?” they had a guest, Alasdair Tremblay-Birchall. I thought Alasdair was funny, so I sought out his podcast, Two in the Think Tank, which he made with his writing partner, Andy Matthews.
Cut to: Me hanging out with Alasdair and Andy at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
I told Andy that I admired the courage (including his) that I was seeing on stage because I also realized that I sometimes struggle with making the leap from casual participation to wholehearted commitment. His immediate response was that I should take an improv class. I told him (I maybe even promised him) that I would.
It took some time and a little more prodding from Andy but finally, five months after that conversation in Melbourne, I was sitting in Unexpected Productions’ Georgetown improv school for the first class of their eight-week Improv 100 program.
I did know, going into it, that I would love some parts of improv class. I work on a creative team and my favorite days at work are the days when we brainstorm and work collaboratively. A big part of that process is playing word association games, offering up whatever comes to mind, and building on each other’s ideas—improv, essentially. And the first two classes were great. We spent most of the time playing simple, silly games, and it was so fun and relaxing.
Our teacher, Mark, gave us the ground rules of improv in the first class. Some of the rules were familiar, others were new and intriguing. Good student that I am, I didn’t write them down. But if I recall them correctly, they were:
- Yes, and… (We all know this one, right?)
- Make your scene partners look brilliant (Cool.)
- Dare to be dull (What!?)
- You can’t be wrong (Phew.)
- No one owns the scene (Awesome.)
Improv as most people know it is a comedic form (think Who’s Line Is It Anyway?). Improv as Mark taught it to us is telling a story together. Because it’s unplanned and unscripted, it often ends up being funny, but the humorous bit is discovered organically through interaction between the actors.
In class three, we started doing scene work. And I started feeling uncomfortable. I had also known, going into it, that I would feel this way at some point. During the last activity of the class, I sat firmly planted in my chair as my classmates got up two at a time to give it a shot. I was looking at my more theatrically inclined classmates, who were experimenting with wacky characters, and felt like that was what I needed to be doing—but I didn’t want to do it.
I said as much when we went around the room reflecting on the day’s takeaways. Then, at the bar afterward (an improv school tradition), Mark reminded me that there was no way to get it wrong, and that I didn’t have to be someone I wasn’t. It came back to dare to be dull. From that angle, improv isn’t about trying to say the best and funniest or most outrageous thing. It’s about responding and adding to the scene. It’s about saying the first thing that comes into your head, even if it’s a completely normal thing to say. A dull response is still something that your scene partners can work with, and that’s all that matters. And occasionally, a dull response is exactly the funniest thing to say in that moment.
The next class, after the warmup games, when Mark asked for two people to get up and practice creating characters, I stood up right away—and nothing bad happened. I felt my hesitation come back over the following weeks, but I mostly didn’t let it stop me again. I participated, and I listened, and I responded to my scene partners. Occasionally, I even said something that people laughed at. I’ll admit that felt good. But when they didn’t laugh, it didn’t hurt, because I wasn’t expecting them to.
On the day of our last class, I sat watching as half of our group performed a Harold. In one scene, a couple went to a dungeon-themed restaurant that had a private room where you could sacrifice a virgin. “I have to admit, I’ve never sacrificed a virgin before,” one of the characters said, as they raised their ceremonial dagger over their head. The waiter replied cheerfully, “There’s a first time for everything!” It was a perfectly dull response, and it was the funniest punchline for that scene.
On the first day of class, we’d gone around the room and talked about our reasons for being there. As you’d expect, everyone’s reasons were different. But eight weeks later, we all felt the same: The experience had been so much better than we’d expected it to be. A handful of us are even signing up for Improv 200, and looking forward to it.