A year ago, I started taking classes in improvisational comedy.
Unlike stand-up comedy, where a comedian memorizes an entire show and performs it for his audience, improv comedians get on stage having no idea what they will say or do.
Performers ask for inspiration from the audience, such as: “name a person you know, an argument you had within the last 24 hours, and a place you hate,” and then the performers make a skit out of it.
I wanted to challenge myself by doing something that made me very uncomfortable…
And I wasn’t disappointed.
It turned out to be a wonderful experience, and life-changing too.
My social skills improved.
I’m a funnier and more fun person to be around. (Even my kids agree, and they never agree with me!)
These were all things I hoped to get out of improv.
What I didn’t expect to discover was how improv is a wonderful philosophy for life.
The premise of improvisational comedy is simple:
Accept and Embrace.
Let me explain.
When you get on stage with a fellow performer, whatever your scene partner says you are supposed to accept and embrace.
So if she says, “Hey Victor, how’s the sanitation engineering field?”, she has just decided that for this scene, I’m a trash collector.
My job for the scene is to be a damn good trash collector (accept) and then to add something new to the scene (embrace).
I might say, “I’m worried about getting laid off. How’s the new baby?”
By doing so, I’ve fully accepted her premise that I’m a trash collector, and I’ve embraced the premise by adding details about my trash-collecting career.
Similarly, I’ve furthered the scene by suggesting she’s a new mother, giving her new information to accept and embrace.
Bad improv occurs when your scene partner gives you a gift of a premise, and you disagree with her on stage.
For example, when she says, “How’s the sanitation engineering job going?”, I could say, “I’m not a sanitation engineer. I’m a surgeon.”
In improv, that is known as a “block.”
Blocking a scene partner is pretty much the worst thing you can do to a partner.
To the uninformed audience member, blocking looks like an awkward moment on stage that isn’t funny or natural.
To someone trained in even a little improv, watching a block occur on stage is like witnessing a car accident in person.
I used to be a blocker extraordinaire.
If a scene partner said, “How’s sanitation engineering college?”
My first thought was, “What are you talking about? Sanitation engineers don’t go to a special college.” Then I’d freeze on stage because I disagreed with my scene partner’s logic.
This is bad comedy.
Funnier would simply be to accept and embrace.
Today, in response to the question “How’s sanitation college going?”, I’d shake my head and say, “I think I’m failing…”
As I got better at accepting and embracing what happens on stage, I noticed something very interesting about myself.
I noticed that I got better at accepting and embracing the unexpected negative things that happen in my life.
For example, improv helped me get through some hard times related to my divorce.
As an improviser, when your scene partner gives you something you weren’t expecting and didn’t really want, you learn to minimize the time spent being in shock, in denial, or angry at what happened.
Improv teaches you to immediately accept what happened and to find a way to deal with what is happening, as opposed to what should be happening instead.
It turns out this is a surprisingly useful approach to dealing with life’s negative surprises.
Improv (and several other tools) have helped me overcome unexpected adversity.
It has also enabled me to lead a happier and more peaceful life.
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