Observations from a experienced Improv master. Zen moments in Improv
To enjoy improv and also to do well in improv, we need to put our ego
aside. Easier said than done, as ego is a loaded term. Notice,
however, how children play and laugh--naturally, without ego.
Children don't become critical or judgmental, to themselves or to
others--to merely play. Adults can do this, too, but adults may need
to warm up (e.g., ice breakers). Also, adults need some agreement to
be kind and encouraging (e.g., like with guidelines for TM
evaluations). Improv has a warm-up and it's detrimental to interrupt
scenes to critique. Instead, we support with smiles and laughter.
One games like word-at-a-time story, is a good example of putting ego
aside. When each person is responsible for contributing only one word
per round, there is much less pressure and thus little reason to the
ego to get involved.
Doing solo improv was very different, because I was solely responsible
for the outcome. However, by putting my ego aside, I was able to walk
up on stage to begin with. Also, by putting my ego aside, I could let
the character take over, literally, as I become each character, which
sort of takes the pressure off. This of course takes practice and
much skill and confidence building, but it's all done with the most
basic improv skills (e.g., yes &, accept all offers, be present,
etc.). These building block skills are often learn through short-form
improv games. Notice the word "games," something most children and
willing adults love to experience.
A lot goes on in an improv game or improv scene. To be most engaged
with the other players, and with the scene, we need to be present. We
can't be thinking about our problems with work or with the family. We
can for sure incorporate our personal problems into scene work. There
is the risk that it become theater therapy, which I've seen. It's
interesting at first, when every scene is about the same topic for
therapeutic reasons, the other player get tired of it. I once know a
guy who's TM speeches were super interesting, but after hearing 10+
speeches on religion starts to get really old ;)
Another warm up with I love is image ball. It really grounds people
in a more present state of mind and facilitates creative thought.
Many improv troupes do sound ball (passing a sound around), but I like
passing images, because it really gets the imagination going. I once
tried having every describe an image using as many senses as possible
(e.g., scent of warm home made apple pie just before taking a bit).
You can also try having people add detail to another persons image.
Just thought of that right now, and think I'll try it next time as an
exercise--sort of a yes & exercise but engaging the 5 senses.
One thing that is unavoidable in improv are mistakes. To make
mistakes work for you instead of against you, you need to treat the
mistake as an offer that must be accepted. This keeps the flow going.
Think of word-at-a-time story. There will be a lot of mistakes, but
it does make for a more interesting story when everyone goes with the
In music improvisation, I've experimented with acknowledging a
mistake, and treating the mistake as an "offer" to be accepted, and
then repeating the tone sequence two or more times. I've done the
same thing with a single bad note, where I'll intentionally repeat the
same bad note but as a transition note. If done well, the bad note
actually adds flavor to a melody.
I've found that when everything in an improv scene comes together
(e.g., yes &, accept all offers, heighten tension, characters take
over, etc.), my memory is a blur and it takes some time for me to
remember what actually happened. That's because I will "lose myself"
in the scene.