I’m Bad At Improv

Leeann Dearing

I had a singing coach who insisted that the reason she was a good instructor was that she had to work so hard to be good. Her vocal talents were not purely intuitive. She found her technique through pure grind; carved it out of a marble slab with some painter’s tape, a straight edge and a hand chisel.

She wasn’t born singing like Snow White into a well.

She worked at it very, very hard for a very, very long time. And now she’s excellent.

I feel like this about Improv. I’m not good at it. I’m not naturally good at it. There are some players on our troupe that do it with such ease. They find game so effortlessly. Even when they do a terrible accent, they come across as endearing and brave.

I’ve always felt like the artist standing in front of a giant marble slab with a hand chisler.

Chip. Chip. Chip.

Why is this? It’s a few things.

I’m a naturally nervous person. A good therapist could probably tell me why, but for now I’m content with knowing that this tends to be an inner obstacle for myself in many areas of life.

Why else? The truth is that I want to be funny. Oh, man I want to. That’s the reason I like Improv so much. I really enjoy comedy, almost more than anything I can think of. There is nothing that feels as good as laughing incredibly hard. Steve Carrell said that, or some variation of it. But so did Charles Dickens, and probably your grandma. Cliche. But so true!

There have been a handful of lessons I’ve learned by doing Improv (often badly). But some of those mistakes eventually produced some good habits. I’d love for you to learn from my mistakes.

  1. Get Your Hands Dirty. Here’s something I catch myself doing a lot. An improviser enters the scene. He starts looking for something in an undefined space. Another improviser enters and starts doing the same thing. A third improviser joins the increasingly frantic search. What do I do? I squat to the floor on the sideline. That’s my non-verbal way of saying “You don’t need me.” “I’m not comfortable. I don’t feel safe to join without some semblance of platform.” WEAK SAUCE. Get off the floor. Go start looking for something. Have an idea, but hold to it loosely.
  2. Play Tennis. Or “see it land”. When you play tennis, you don’t keep firing tennis balls at your partner. You see it land. You watch the return. You react. Don’t turn into a punch-line ball-machine on rapid fire. Send your idea out and wait to see the aftermath.
  3. Look for Love. Conflict is going to happen, and it should. Nothing is bad, everything is useful. However, I will say that some of my most memorable, beautiful Improv experiences tend to be the ones where I was looking for love. Looking for real, genuine connection with my partner. Looking to find the affection in the argument, the camaraderie in the combat. When I come into the scene looking for an argument, that’s just what I get.
  4. Improv rules are just rules for being an excellent human being. If you’re reading this, I’m certain you’re an excellent person. So do what you would do. React how you would react. Especially at the beginning of your training. I used to do waaaaay too much in my Improv scenes. Now the times I feel the best are generally the times I’m doing less (or what I would define as “less” for me.)

I hope this helps. And if it doesn’t help, I hope it makes you feel less alone if you struggle with Improvisation.

Chip, Chip, Chip.