Here at ROK we frequently say that you should constantly be working on ways to improve yourself. To that end, I recently enrolled in a beginners improv course to see what effect, if any, it would have on my conversational and social skills, as well as on my confidence. While the class definitely paid dividends in each of these areas, it also turned out to be a lot of fun—so much so that I’m planning on taking another early next year. Below I outline what an improv class is like, and share the top three things I learned.
Improv—short for improvisation—is the art of producing spontaneous, acted scenes, usually between small groups of people. They can be comic, serious, or something in between.
Who Goes to a Beginners Improv Class?
You will likely find a fairly motley collection of people at your local improv class. Some will be aspiring actors, perhaps with prior training. Others will be stiff, slightly desperate office drones, in search of a creative outlet. Others still will be directionless millennials, just coming to understand—dimly—that their post-humanities degree cubicle job is entirely with out value or dignity, and that this is their lot until they die, and that it is therefore pleasurable to forget by hollering and whooping for a few hours, indulging in adult “play.” Most will be friendly, though, offering you the chance to widen your social circle if you so wish.
Put aside your reservations about the irredeemably chodey reputation that improv has in some quarters. This is largely unjustified, and anyway, there is a lot to be learned from it.
What Happens At Class?
An improv class usually caters for between ten and fifteen students and is run by a tutor. The tutor may or may not be a failed actor who is compelled to make a living this way. Or they may be a bright-eyed, hippyish former drama student who is really into connecting with her inner child and one day hopes to be in a Gap advert. It depends.
The tutor will lead the class through a series of warm-up games and exercises, before gradually getting small groups of people to enact scenes in front of the rest of the class. They will give instructions along the lines of “imagine you’re all on a plane and . . . the plane is made of jelly!'”
These scenarios may be devised by the tutor or the by the rest of the group. To imagine what this is like, think back to drama class at school. Yes, I’m, afraid all of that “be a tree” stuff is out there waiting for you. This time, though, it will be with a bunch of adults in some shabby disused rehearsal space in the arty, rent-controlled side of town.
To get the most out of improv you should put your cynicism aside. In real life I am by nature someone who is more comfortable with serious conversations, and who can find “organized fun” a little embarrassing. But the purpose of taking an improv class is to expand the limits of your character, so you should go in prepared to shed your inhibitions.
I made a pact with myself to forget about my normal limitations for the two hours I was there and just open myself up to a new experience. If you do the same, then improv will definitely pay dividends, improving your confidence and social skills. Here are three specific things I learned, and how they can be applied in everyday life.
1. Say Yes to Everything
One of the fundamentals of improv is saying yes—that is, not blocking the flow of a scene by dumping on someone else’s idea. So, if someone says “we’re on a spaceship made of cheese,” then rather than telling them it’s a crap idea, you should say “yes” by eagerly taking the bait and running with it, building on and extending what has been proposed.
This can work very well in normal conversation. Say you are talking to a girl in a nightclub, and she starts talking about something that bores you, like her holiday in Florida. Rather than shutting her down and trying to change topics, try latching onto what she has said and mining it for humorous possibilities or extending it to the point of absurdity. In the case of the Florida comment, you could talk about the two of you overthrowing Mickey and Minnie Mouse as the king and queen of Disneyland. Anything stupid and fun to create vibe and keep the conversation going.
If you’ve done some improv training you’ll find you will quickly become more adept at this as your brain starts to find quirky little connections faster.
2. You Don’t Have to Worry About Being Funny or Clever
In improv, you are taught not to sweat being the next Steve Martin or Nietzsche. Not everything that comes out of your mouth is going to be a perfectly-formed Wildean bon-mot, or earth-shatteringly intelligent. The good news is, this is the same for everyone, so don’t worry about it. When you take the pressure off yourself to be impressive, you will find that your mind works more efficiently and that strangely you are more able to come up with those conversational gems than when you are trying too hard.
Again, this works really well when you are in a social setting such as a club or bar. Give yourself permission to say stupid and even boring things sometimes. It really doesn’t matter—your main aim should simply be to keep the conversation going. When you practice this a few times you’ll be pleasantly surprised about how entertaining you can be when you’re relaxed.
3. The Awesome Power of Sustained Eye Contact
Having to act in scenes with people in character for sometimes up to ten minutes at a time, in particular with people who had had acting training, really honed my ability to hold eye contact without embarrassment for long periods of time. In any kind of acting, the ability to be still and self-contained is crucial. The class really helped me with this. Even after a few short weeks, I now find that I am able to look at people more steadily and unwaveringly then before. This really helps in all types of interactions, from meeting girls to holding successful business meetings.
I can’t recommend improv enough for instilling and honing these basic social skills. I am certainly glad I took the class and I look forward to beginning again in the new year.
For more on using simple social skills to meet beautiful women, click here.