3/11/13

3 Lessons from Improv Class and important life advice from Tina Fey

As an awkward teen, one of my greatest joys in life was going to summer camp every year. Not for the delightful lunchtime hash browns or the chance to cross the state line from Indiana into Kentucky.

Though both of those were a plus.

At camp, I always enrolled in a week-long improv class. One where we played games, learned about the word "chutzpah" and got into trouble if we pantomimed drunkenness.

It was good times.

A few months ago, I heard an improv theater in Orlando, the SAK Comedy Lab, was offering a free improv class for those who were interested in seeing what a semester of improv classes might be like. So I signed up. Because why not? Maybe they'd have hash browns...


Though I was too chicken (and overbooked) to sign up for official classes, what I got that night was a great refresher course in improv and therefore a few really great reminders about how to do a better job at being alive.

I want to give you a few samples of what our instructor taught, but nothing can compare to signing up for these classes (or similar classes in your area) and learning this stuff in person. It's 100% more effective to get out there and do it than it is to read about someone who did it.

1. Say, "Yes, and..." - Tina Fey writes about this improv rule a lot, only she talks about it as a life concept. It's the art of agreement. Improv performers don't fight each other about the illusions they create onstage. If Guy #1 onstage says he's a gorilla, Guy #2 onstage doesn't say, "No you're not! You're my grandma!"

For example:

Guy #1: *pretends to be gorilla*
Guy #2: *hands Guy #1 an invisible banana and pretends to be a zookeeper*

OR

Guy #1: *pretends to be a gorilla*
Guy #2: *also pretends he is a gorilla and starts picking fleas off of Guy #1*

You get the idea.

"Say yes and you'll figure it out afterward." - Tina Fey

This concept allows performers to build and create vs. spending their time arguing or fighting for dominance onstage. (I'm slipping into nature show gorilla speak by accident now.) If you fail, you fail. So what? But nine times out of ten, you aren't going to fail if you just stick to this basic concept. You're going to learn what you can really do out of your comfort zone while under pressure.

We're all capable of far more than we actually achieve. We as in "humans" not we as in "Audrey and her imaginary friends". But yeah, me and the squad of tap-dancing assassins that hang out with me could probably be getting more done too.

So what's the difference between the Tina Feys and the Joss Whedons of the world and us dummies? Maybe they're just willing to put one foot in front of the other and see what they can do.  Or maybe they're super geniuses. Whatever.

2. It's far more embarrassing not to give it your all. Think about this, you're watching an episode of American Idol. Shut up, you are!

A singer comes in to audition. Instead of belting it out, they barely squeak out a song. You wince. You're embarrassed for them. Why would they have come all that way just to chump out?

(Don't answer that, it's rhetorical. I know it's because they were afraid.)

Now imagine you went to hear a stand-up comedian and the guy telling the jokes was so self-conscious that he kept apologizing for the ones that weren't that great. It would be an awful experience to have to watch that.

You get the idea, right?

If you're gonna fail at something, go down in a blaze of glory. Give it everything you've got. Do that and maybe you'll learn something from it. But if you let your inhibitions rule your actions, you'll never get the chance to see what you could do.

In improv, when a performer makes a joke that isn't funny, sometimes the actual act of FAILING at that joke gets a laugh because they were fully invested. Or sometimes it's their reaction to their own failure that leads to the laugh. They'll make fun of themselves when a joke doesn't stick, the audience laughs and the show doesn't skip a beat.

But if they got upset and ran off the stage crying, well, that would be a show-stopper. And not in the fancy old-timey movie way.

I stand firm that some people with absolutely no talent "make it" just because they were brave enough to go for it and give it their all. How many talentless hacks and ego-maniacs have you rolled your eyes at in terrible movies or awful live shows? If THEY can do it, so can you.

(I'm refraining from making a numbered list of people I consider to be talentless hacks, but that doesn't mean you have to! Give me ten talentless hacks that are successful in their fields: GO!)

3. Don't think so hard. Sometimes, it's okay to go with your first gut instinct. In improv, it's not the wackiest suggestions or most outlandish situations that get the biggest laughs. Sometimes it's the most obvious or the first that spring to mind.

I get caught up on this a lot. I think I have to write the world's most original essay or use the biggest word I can think of when I'm working on a print article. I used to tell my creative writing students, there's no such thing as a completely original story. Just tell your story YOUR way. (I'm working on a comic right now that's a "magic door" story. Other magic door stories: "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe", "Alice in Wonderland", "Labyrinth", etc. Does that mean I can't tell mine? Of course not!)

While it's true there's a time to redraft and a time to mull over individual words, there's also a time to just get something down on paper. A business plan, a screenplay, or even something that doesn't require writing. Maybe there's a conversation you need to have and you're procrastinating.

Sometimes you just have to GO already.

It was refreshing that the idea in improv is to fill in the blanks and keep the momentum going, not to fill in the blanks with the BEST or most original suggestions. Improv is all about speed.

So those are the tips. 

I've really been mulling those three ideas over a lot since taking the class. It was almost like free therapy. As aspiring creatives, what if we just put one foot in front of the other and filled in the blanks on whatever it is we want to do? Wouldn't that be nice? Instead of worrying about writing the next great American novel or winning the Pulitzer?

Me rambling about it here on my blog really doesn't do it justice either. The class I attended at SAK was full of people from all different age groups who were at various comfort levels. Some people there were fighting crippling shyness. Others were very much the life of the party. Some were there to fight stuttering and stage fright and others had hopes and dreams of becoming professional improv performers someday.

But there was a great equalizer. When it was your turn to get onstage and make something up, you HAD to do it. Which was liberating. If you fight with inhibitions, shyness, social anxiety, anything like that at all, get thee to an improv class. It's aversion therapy and it works.

I want to leave you with a homework assignment. I want you to think about some of your favorite TV shows. If you have Netflix or something called "the internet", I want you to go and watch some of the pilots for those favorite shows of yours.

Often in TV, a writer/creator will throw everything they've got into the pilot of their TV show. Sometimes there are years of hopes and dreams all tangled up in that very first crucial episode.

And often times they look back at those pilots and wince and think, "I thought THAT was good?" Their shows grow, evolve and change. The writing gets better. The characters become more fleshed out. All because they put one foot in front of the other. Because they said yes. Because they gave it their all and because they didn't obsess over the details. They just. Got it. DONE.
The pilot for "Golden Girls" featured an additional character named "Coco",
a bad wig on Sophia, a heavy emphasis on her recent stroke, and Bea Arthur got
almost all of the punchlines. What if they hadn't been willing to work out the kinks?

SO that's two homework assignments I'm giving you.

1. A list of ten talentless hacks that are getting plenty of work. (This is your list of no excuses. If they can do it, so can you)

2. Going back and investigating the origins of some of your favorite TV shows and learning how the shows changed.

BONUS POINTS: If you can, find interviews with the creators of those TV shows talking about feeling embarrassed by their early works.

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