The Spiritual Discipline of Improv Comedy

A while back I was a ministerial student at Unity Institute, Unity Village. (I am on a long hiatus.) Here is a term paper I wrote for one of my favorite classes with one of my favorite teachers…

The Spiritual Discipline of Improv Comedy

Ned Kelley

SPD 551 – Spirit Mind Body

Rev. R Brumet

December 8th, 2008

Purpose of This Paper

This paper is about Improv Comedy. Specifically, we will explore the discipline of training and studying the performance art of Improv Comedy. The aim of this paper is to impress upon the reader the merit of taking Improv Comedy training classes as a spiritual discipline. Hopefully, the ongoing benefits to mind, body, spirit, and interpersonal relationships will be demonstrated. I consider continued participation in such workshops and clubs to be a valuable contributor to my personal growth, mindfulness, and my overall balance of being.

What is Improv?

Improvisation is a form of acting which, as the name suggests, is unscripted. The actors are usually given suggestions for characters and/or a topic. Then they interact, making it up as they go. This has long been used as a training technique for acting. Its purpose is to help performers get in touch with their emotions and make their characters “real.” Improvising theatrical scenes, songs, and games for its comedic value has become an art form in its own right. This is known as “Improv Comedy” or simply, “Improv.” This art is popularized today by the show, “Whose Line is it Anyway?” Many Americans are also familiar with Improv troupes such as “Second City” in Chicago.

Two Improv professionals with much of their experience coming out of Chicago are my friends, Larrance Fingerhut and Jennifer Shepard. Since 2004, Jen and Larrance have been the proprietors of ImprovAcadia, an Improv Comedy theatre in Bar Harbor, Maine. In addition to directing, being part of the cast, and providing the music; the duo offer Improv training to the public. This is where I was first introduced to the discipline. Many such Improv theatres offer classes from beginner level on up. Additionally, I am starting an Improv Club here at Unity Village, in the Spring term of 2009. Through informal games and drills, students and staff will be invited to practice the basics of Improv. The basics can be boiled down to 1) Listening, and 2) “Yes-And”.

The Importance of Listening on Stage

Listening is the fundamental skill for Improv Comedy. In order for the performers to make anything at all happen, they must be listening completely to their partners. The best Improvisers catch every line, every word, every gesture, and subtle accent or nuance that their fellow actor comes out with. If one does not pick up on the clues and cues from their partner it can bring the scene to a screeching halt.

Imagine one actor starts a scene by saying to the other, “Mom, what’s for supper?” thus establishing their relationship. But, the other performer misheard “Mom” as “Tom”. The response is, “Let’s go out for a romantic dinner!” This could completely throw off (and possibly offend) the audience. Subsequently, the first actor is left with the awkward task of somehow justifying this answer.

Listening to the words is only part of it. Awareness must take place at all levels. Each actor has the responsible to observe and take into account: the physical action on stage, audience reactions, and musical accompaniment (usually improvised). A particular way of walking or a tilt of the head could significantly indicate who a character is. One must learn to digest hundreds of details in a few seconds. 

The Benefits of Listening

In Improv classes, we apply specific techniques with which to hone our listening skills. Through this training we open up our senses. We develop the habit of mindfulness. We learn to be aware of ourselves, what we say, and what we do. We become more tuned into the people around us and our environment.

Perhaps most importantly, by learning how to listen, our relationships improve. Listening is essential for communication. Becoming adept at Improv requires the following skills:

1) Focusing your attention on your partner.

2) Acknowledging them and indicating that they have been heard.

3) Not interrupting or speaking over them.

4) Not thinking about what you want to say while they’re talking.

All of these skills are necessary on stage to keep a scene moving. They all can equally be applied at work, at school, and at home. By exercising them and making them a habit, all of your relationships become more effective and loving.

Red-Ball Blue-Ball

Following is a quick fun drill for listening skills. Participants, about six to twelve is ideal for this game, stand in a circle. A person holds an imaginary ball in their hands, picks a person at random and says, “red ball”. After a pantomimed throw and catch, the receiver says, “red ball, thank you.” This person then picks someone else to whom they “red ball.” And so on. In this game each person trains their ability to listen and watch and acknowledge that they’ve caught was being thrown. As it progresses, a blue ball can be added. When a group has learned to listen well to each other, there can be several imaginary balls and objects (or even animals) being thrown about.

Yes-And…

In addition to Listening there is another crucial skill in Improv Comedy. It is known as “Yes-And.” To Yes-And is to first, accept an idea presented by someone else (Yes); and then contribute to it (And). This is a simple yet vital concept.

For example, suppose one improviser says, “Let’s ride in this car.” To which the second performer responds, “Yeah, I’ll drive us to Grandpa’s house!” Thus, the actor is taking what was offered, plus adding a little more information and direction to the scene. On the other hand, imagine if the response is, “I don’t see a car.” This will surely bring the scene down, effectively eliminating any device to move the action forward.

Non Violent Communication

The key is to develop a Yes-And state of mind. In Improv, you make it a habit to accept what you are offered, neither fighting against it nor ignoring it. You simply allow it to be… AND, then you incorporate, expand, or shift it to make something out of it. If you can truly make this a habit, life is much easier. We become open and receptive to our own thoughts and emotions. We learn to be less judgmental of ourselves as well as the people in our lives.

Not that we must always hold the same opinion as others’. For there to be balance, we need only to honor and allow their beliefs. We learn to “meet people where they are”. Likewise, Improvisers may (and often do) take their characters into conflict with one another. Of course, this leads to tension, drama, action, and comedy on stage. But, good improvisers will always accept the premises established by their scene partners even while their characters are arguing.

Basic “Yes-And” Training

Here is one of the drills for instilling the Yes-And reflex. First, pick a random noun such as, “cheese.” Then, each person in the group takes a turn boldly stating a virtue (rational or not) about it. The group enthusiastically replies with a, “yes” for each statement. It might go like this:

“Cheese tastes great!”

“Yes!”

“And, you can make shoes out of cheese!”

“Yes!”

“And, cheese is friendly!”

“Yes!”…

It is easy to see how silly these Improv games and exercises can get. This leads to my favorite element of Improv Comedy. It is funny!

The Best Medicine

Laughter truly is wonderful for our physical and emotional health. It promotes deeper diaphragmatic breathing. (As does the actor’s practice of voice projection.) It relieves stress and thus helps restore balance in our blood pressure, metabolism, and overall energy. Tests have shown that ten seconds of laughter is equivalent to twenty minutes of aerobic exercise. That statement may or may not be true, but it is offered as an opportunity for you to practice “Yes-And”.

Letting Go

Through Improv training we learn to release. We practice non-attachment. On stage, one does not hold onto an idea if it is not the natural direction a story is going. An improviser may have a notion, perhaps a wonderful and brilliant notion. But things change quickly in Improv, which will often force him or her to let go of that precious idea.

In the spiritual teachings of Unity we call this, “Renunciation.” That is the release of a belief which is no longer serving you. Improvisers renunciate at light speed. The development of the power of Renunciation facilitates a return to mental and emotional equilibrium. By being mindful (listening to ourselves) we can catch ideas or choices which might pull us away from balance. With practice, we can more easily bless them, thank them, let them go, and make another choice or affirm a new belief.

Flexibility

In Improv we learn to stretch ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. We try on a variety of roles. We open ourselves up, and are sometimes surprised by what we find. We practice being in the moment. Because there is no attachment to an outcome, there is no struggling against what is happening. We learn to become one with the flow. We condition ourselves to stay awake and alert. Yet, there is too much going on to process it all at an upper-consciousness level. Improvisers learn to go with their gut and trust their intuition. Improv training cultivates a synergy of your own senses, feelings, and movements with those of your partners. We develop internal and external harmony.

Playing with Others.

Essentially, Improv is learning how to play. It is all about giving and receiving. It is the art of taking turns, leading, following, honoring, challenging, and sharing space with one another. The value of play is emphasized by Dr. Joel and Michelle Levey of Innerwork Technologies, Inc. On page 217, in their book, Living in Balance, they put it this way, “It is not about humiliation, rejection, competition, mocking, exclusion, admiration, defensiveness, or fear… Play is about balance, mystery, belonging, inclusion, trust, sacredness, fearlessness, touch, reciprocity, love, kindness, openness, and joy.”

For your own spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional balance, consider joining in some Improv Comedy training. Please, come and play with me.

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