Improv Is My Religion

A year and a half ago, I was in love. Or at least I thought I was. Now, I can look back and say I was only sort of in love. But I’m pretty sure that’s just how love works?

Eh, I’ll leave that to someone else to answer.

I was two years in to the best relationship I had ever been in, and I had every intention of ultimately marrying my girlfriend at the time. We were young and still in school, but I asked her one night if she would move in with me once we graduated that spring.

I was completely unprepared for her response. Apparently, she really didn’t see us working out past college.

I was devastated and alone.

I had just finished a semester off school for an internship, and I was spending most of my free time with her. I had alienated most of my friends during this relationship, and many of those weren’t even worth repairing, as graduation was right around the corner.

I needed something to do. I needed to make new friends. I needed to get her off my mind. So I started listening to podcasts as a distraction, Marc Maron’s WTF in particular.

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And serendipitously, during one interview, Jon Favreau casually mentioned getting his start through improv.

That triggered something in me – a spark I hadn’t felt in years. I used to act a lot in middle and high school (including my 15 minutes of fame, co-starring with Wilford Brimley in a movie that was never to see the light of day).

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During that time, I was taking a class on improv. I remember trying to get my neighbor to play “Whose Line…” style games with me, but he was always more interested in basketball and boobs (one of which I still don’t get and another that I now can’t get enough of…I’ll let you figure it out).

When I got home, I went straight to the computer, Googled “Improv St. Louis,” and The Improv Shop website was the first thing to pop up. Classes were forming that weekend and I thought, “I’ve got nothing going on Saturday. What’s $200?”

Little did I know, I couldn’t have invested $200 in anything that would have a bigger impact on my life.

On the first day, my level 1 teacher, Kevin McKernan, said impov was his religion. I said, “you’re full of crap” (in my head, of course, because saying that out loud would be super rude). But a year and a half later, I’ve started to realize that Kevin wasn’t full of crap.

That afternoon in January 2013, I casually, accidentally, on a whim, signed up for something that has fundamentally changed how I spend my time, who I spend my time with, and pretty much altered the entire trajectory of everything.

Now, I am the one running around like a new-agey, space cadet, shouting, “improv is my religion!”

How so?

Religion, as I see it, gives its followers two main benefits.

  • Community: A church or synagogue or whatever isn’t just a building. It’s a focal point for a group of like-minded people to support and connect with one another. The Improv Shop has become my church.
  • Philosophy: Whether or not you believe in God or Jesus or whatever, religion provides a series of guidelines for how to lead a rich and fulfilling life. And I can only speak for myself, but here are three principles improv has taught me that I try to practice every day:

Say Yes (And):

The guiding principle of improvisation, you accept the reality and build on it.

“Yes” means I acknowledge, validate, and accept whatever reality is in front of me, objectively and without any value judgment. I don’t have to like it and it doesn’t have to be positive, but it’s a waste of energy to deny or argue about what’s been established as true. “And” means I do what I can to add my part in making it a little bit better.  – Melanie Penn

In life, say yes to every opportunity you can – coffee with your best friend or a new acquaintance (even if it might be awkward at first), that writing project you don’t really have time for, a trip you can’t really afford. Who knows what might happen.

When you say yes, you give yourself a chance to do something amazing that you didn’t know you could. When you say “and,” you build on your own or someone else’s ideas and make them stronger.

Listen and React:

Before a show, standing in the wings, my heart is racing. I have no idea what’s about to happen. No idea what I will say. Will my scenes be good? What if I have a crap initiation? What if I accidentally deny the reality?

But the minute I step on stage, I enter a flow state. I listen and react, and somehow, magically, words flow out of my mouth, we build something together, and 30 minutes fly by. I have never run out of things to say.

In the parking lot before meeting with a new friend or before a first date, I wonder, “why did I set up this date? Who is this person? I am going to have nothing to say to her. We are going to stare at each for 30 minutes while our coffee gets cold and she will hate me. Then my life will be over.” But the minute we sit down at the table and I ask, “What did you do this weekend?” a world of possibility opens. Two hours somehow magically pass.

I ask questions about their stories. I become truly interested. I have started learning how to truly listen, not just wait for my turn to talk. I am able to “yes, and” what they are saying.

Be Vulnerable:

A lot of people spend their lives making small talk. But no one likes small talk. We would all prefer to spend time with that one friend that we can really talk to. The person who knows our embarrassing secrets, deep insecurities, and true emotions.

So why not treat everyone like that friend?

Twenty years ago, everyone had to be too cool for school and sneer at everything. Right now, the most avant-garde thing you can do is to be sincere. – Steve Coogan

Being too cool for school doesn’t actually make you cool. It makes you douchenozzle. Having the courage to be open with people, to be honest and allow yourself to be vulnerable, to freely give compliments or freely discuss your emotions will lead to richer relationships and a happier life. The more time you spend inventing a persona and playing a role, the less time you’ll spend making real friendships and real relationships.

Although I have always been confident, extroverted and an attention whore, thanks to improv, I am no longer afraid or ashamed of who I am or what I was. In job interviews, I let people see the real me. Meeting new people I still say “fuck” because I say “fuck” a lot in real life. If someone impresses me with a blog or video or whatever, I don’t just “like” it. I tell them specifically why I appreciate and admire what they did. If people can’t handle those things when we’re first meeting, then why would they like me later on? I don’t have the time or energy to perpetuate a “cool” You can get on the bus or you can take your ball go home.

It’s like mom always said in middle school. Just be yourself.

 

When I got dumped, I was heartbroken. I sat on the porch and cried on the phone to my parents. I thought my ex-girlfriend was the one, and I thought my life was pretty much over. A year and a half ago, everything was different.

Now, I have a kick ass job as a writer, I coach improv, I perform weekly and am part of two different and awesome teams, I have a blog with tons of supportive readers, I was just cast to be part of a sketch show, I have tons of friends, and I make new ones every week. I still don’t have a girlfriend. But, I’ve never been happier.

Improv has literally changed my life. It has given me community, it has given me a philosophy, and it has given me faith – faith in myself and faith in my choices, because in life and in improv, there are no mistakes.

Improv is my religion.

I know most of you reading this already do improv and have already bought into a lot of this new-agey mumbo jumbo, but those of you who don’t, I would really recommend taking an improv class. New classes are starting at The Improv Shop this weekend (it’s not too late to sign up). Or check out an improv theater in your city. It may will change your life. 

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