In my other life, not as a life coach, social worker, mother, or personal trainer, I used to spend most of my time participating in community theater. We used to live in a lovely little historic old town, with shops and restaurants surrounding us on all sides. Just a few blocks away was a community theater that I grew to consider a second home. I took classes and helped with costumes. Dare I say, I even graced the stage on a few occasions. One of my fondest memories is the semester my dear college friend Janet and I decided to take an improvisation class. Improv is billed as a theatrical arts skill for beginners, and one of the best ways to loosen up your mind and body for learning the craft of building a character and acting comfortably on stage.
If you have never seen improv, watch an episode of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and you’ll understand the appeal. Watching improv performers take random or mundane information and deftly weave it into something funny is a sight to see. Learning how it is done was instructive for my acting, a huge laugh for Janet and I, and somehow quite pertinent to life overall.
One of the first things you learn in improv is to listen. Really listen. That seems so simple but we often don’t realize how much of our “listening” is just the opposite. We are preparing for what we are going to say when it is finally our turn to speak, or conducting an internal dialogue about what the other person is saying, or just drifting off and nodding our head to pretend like we are listening while we actually tick off what needs to get done once we get home. Learning to just listen, without an agenda, without any preparation for what comes next, takes practice. How can you know what you are going to say if you haven’t finished listening to what they are saying? In improv, our interactions are less authentic if we have failed to catch all that was just said to us. I’m certain the same thing goes for life. Conversations are more meaningful, more thoughtful, more revealing, when we just listen.
Another amazing lesson from improv is the strategy “yes, and”. We are taught early and often to never shut down an idea. Never deny the possibility and close the door to someone else’s train of thought. If someone came to you with “There is a purple horse in the front yard”, your first instinct might be to say “Of course there isn't” or “there is no such thing as a purple horse”. You would start offering the facts to back up your claim. You would deny it and spend your energy making sure they knew they were incorrect. But in improv, you are programmed to do precisely the opposite. The other actor on stage is going to hand you information that you must use to keep the story going. And you must just go with it - pretend that what they say is true. You have to be curious enough about their declaration or their reality to explore it more and contribute to the conversation.
“There is a purple horse in the front yard.”
“Yes, and he is eating all of the chocolate donuts the neighbors bought us!”
Go with it. Explore. Expand. Allow the unbelievable to be real for a moment. Imagine. It is a necessity for improv, and probably not a bad idea for real life.
“What you said to me yesterday was totally out of line and untrue.”
“Yes, and I want to hear why you think that. Tell me more.”
Yes, and what about this is so important to you?
Yes, and what else do you have to say about this?
Yes, and how can I help?
Yes, and opens doors. Open doors lead to opportunities to grow and change and learn and connect. Whether there is really a purple horse or not is totally irrelevant.
Another great lesson from my improv class was to fear not the experiment. Stay loose and ready to just try it. Be flexible enough to know that not everything will work out how you planned. Better yet, don’t bother with a plan; put something out in the world and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, meaning it either isn’t funny or doesn’t lead your fellow troupe members to a viable storyline to follow, try something else next time. Simple enough. Improv gives you absolute license to do stuff that just doesn’t always work. No biggie. If we could only approach life that way, too. No harm, no foul when we try our best and still find that it needs an adjustment. To me this doesn’t mean you have to live on the edge and engage in risky, crazy behavior. To me this just means you have to allow yourself to live. Maybe even live it up. But most certainly don’t live afraid.
Listening before we speak, opening the door to the world that others present to you, and not being afraid to experiment are just a few of the lessons I took away from those hilarious little improv classes. Janet and I never went on to be improv geniuses. But I'm sure she uses her improv skills as a killer attorney, listening patiently to her clients before she speaks. I’m also pretty sure that if a client told her there was a purple horse, she’d tell them yes, and….bill them hourly as they tell her all about it.