Improv Needs You to Stop Trying so Hard

That human beings are inherently interesting is the fundamental premise of improv. We don’t need you to be anything other than what you are, and in fact we’ll actively lean back from people desperate to be funny (or desperate to be anything, really). Which is a discouraging idea for those of us who have spent our lives working way too hard to be liked – modifying our behavior, compromising our inspiration and cultivating the acceptable social faces to charm and disarm anyone we think might be looking.

If we have a hard time being the most genuine, effortless version of ourselves in life, and on stage that difficulty is magnified by the pressure of attention. But improv proves again and again that the best version of you, the YOU that fascinates and delights audiences, is the one whose not trying to do anything more than what comes immediately and naturally right now as an honest reaction to whatever just happened right then. And yet so much of what happens on the improv stage is a panicked attempt to MAKE things interesting, and to MAKE things funny. We dredge up negative emotions, introduce sweaty conflict, force a “funny idea.”

To get back to that unfiltered self, you have to let go of the need to be funny, of the need to please and be judged worthy. You have to accept that the vulnerability of not having control and of accepting the possibility of success or failure in every moment is what truly thrills other human beings – because that freedom is what every single one of us is longing for and seeing it on stage is a revelation.

And on the improv stage, you’re not just a relatable human being in the wild, but a relatable human being stepping into a risky (and perhaps ultimately unwise) situation. You’re doubling down on vulnerability. You’re the reality television of people watching. If we watched you go about your day unaware of being observed, we would probably be intrigued for a while and then lose interested eventually, until you were faced with some decision or peril to draw us back in. The act of improvisation is stepping into non-stop decision and peril and audiences are thrilled to watch sincere, humble people embrace that risk.

The funny doesn’t need you to make it happen. The funny will come from stepping into the unknown and creating expectations in the audience. When those expectations are met in a surprising way or undermined completely the funny will flow.

So like all great liberating and inspiring disciplines, improv converges on the absence of self-conscious self and the virtue of inspired action from a centered and engaged place.

 

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