Improv means facing the unknown like a traveler does when visiting a foreign country. 

I’m stepping out onto new ground. I have a teacher I haven’t met before and classmates with whom to get acquainted.

In Improv 101, I had friends with me. Now I’m in Improv 201. My friends were all otherwise occupied this time, so I traveled into the class solo. I’m not really alone, of course. On my first foray into the classroom at the Headwaters Campus, I found myself accompanied by six lively kindred spirits and a teacher who really knows her stuff. 

In this new territory with people I don’t know, the culture isn’t familiar. There’s a new language or at least new terminology used in ways that seem strange at first. There are different underlying assumptions being made, so what works in my prior location may not work here. When I walked into the room for Improv 101, I felt like Dorothy arriving in the Land of Oz muttering, “I’m not in Kansas anymore.”  Now in Improv 201, I’ve returned to Oz.

Travel is both exciting and uncomfortable at times. It can be embarrassing when I do something that works in the Land of Austin that doesn’t work in the Land of Improv. At such times I feel like a fish out of water. For example, asking questions instead of making statements, because asking questions puts a scene partner on the spot. Or saying, “No, let’s not do that, let’s do something else instead”, forgetting to go with “Yes, And…” It’s like visiting a different country where everyone except me seems to know how to act. 

It’s similar to being in England, for example, where there’s no ice in your drinking water, they don’t tip in the same way, and queueing up in an orderly way for public buses is essential and you’ll get public flak if you don’t. Over time I learned to do what the natives did.

In the Land of Improv, with many of the rules of normal interaction changed, it’s possible to be creative, flexible, and playful because those are the customs in this new “foreign country.” Play, rather than work, is the cultural norm. Being funny is not required, but the assumptions and expectations here virtually guarantee that it will happen. In class the previous week, an imaginary elephant showed up at my workplace and pooped. Later, after my character cheated on their husband in Las Vegas, we all went to The Oscars together. None of that would happen in my ordinary world. But in the Land of Improv, anything is possible and encouraged when the culture of play is operating.

This new land is often funny, regardless of whether I’m in perfect sync with the new place or making mistakes in it. Mistakes can be funny too or if not, at least an occasion for learning. Taking a bow and saying, “I failed!” is one custom in the Land of Improv that I really like. “You made a mistake, how wonderful, you’re learning something new!” It’s so unlike many workplaces in the Land of Austin.

I’m still getting used to these new ways of interacting. One custom in the Land of Improv, shared with the greater Region of Theater, is always facing an audience and not turning my back on those watching. I’m working on that. And it’s sometimes a challenge to kick up the energy level a notch or two to display total commitment to a scene. It’s the antithesis to the British “stiff upper lip” with which I grew up with years ago in England. That’s how I know about the lack of ice water, different tipping practices, and bus queues. That cross-cultural experience prepared me well for the new customs I’ve found in this place.

The Land of Improv is about new expectations and practices to which I’ve had to acclimate. But the payoff is that when I return home to the Land of Austin there’s a joyful, playful spirit that comes with me. 

About Ann Lo

Ann Locasio is a young-at-heart student of Improv 201 who works at Austin State Hospital, pet sits, and travels whenever she can.

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