When I told a friend I’m taking improv classes her response sounded like, “Wow, you are so brave. I could never do that.” While I might be brave, that’s not the trait that motivated me to take the class. I think my friend was also a bit surprised because she knows I’m not super outgoing. And while there’s some truth to that, I’m no wallflower either. As to why she would never do it, I think there’s a lack of understanding about what it means to improvise. If she understood, my guess is she would not be so surprised and might even check it out for herself.
My first encounter with improv happened during the last semester of my senior year in high school. I’d been kicked out of welding class over an unfortunate misunderstanding with Mr. Spence, our welding teacher. I suspect he didn’t like guys with long hair, and I didn’t like guys who didn’t like long hair. (This was the 1970s by the way.) Consequently, I had to come up with an elective pronto just to graduate.
My friend Lewis suggested drama class. Lewis had been in most of our high school’s theater productions, and he could spout off lines by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, whom I’d never read but understood were heavy-weight writers. Secretly I wanted to try acting but feared I’d end up looking like a fool. But circumstances played their hand and drama was the only open class. Mostly I hung back and watched others, but occasionally I had to do something. Eventually, I relaxed enough to participate. To loosen up we did some acting drills that I now recognize as improv. I didn’t have time to think about what I was doing before I did it. That was fun. A couple of times I forgot myself completely and tapped into a way of being that allowed me to creatively express what it meant to be me. That was amazing!
Fast-forward forty years. (It goes by quicker than you think.) I’ve got a lot less hair, and now I’m the teacher, albeit English instead of welding, but I still empathize with the longhaired teenager. Last year I hit a wall with a creative writing project I’d been working on and couldn’t figure out how to get going again. This time I took the advice of my neighbor, Michael Ferstenfeld, who suggested I try improv as a means to stimulate creative expression. Turns out he’d performed improv for years and taught improv at Merlin Works.
So, I put my old fear of looking like a fool on hold and signed up for Improv 101 with Shana Merlin. She showed us how to resurrect our playfulness by tossing spongy, colorful ball-like objects from person to person, engaging others with fast-paced word games like, “Whoosh Bang Pow,” and embracing radical concepts like, “Be willing to fail.” Gradually I began to understand that by learning to be more spontaneous, I could tap into a part of me that intuitively knows what to do or say without having to think about it. Remembering how to play doesn’t come easy for some of us, especially if you’ve been climbing the ladder of success, fallen off a few times, and then forgotten why you got on the damn thing in the first place. Turns out looking like a fool can at times be a good thing, and maybe even a path to creatively expressing what it means to be you.