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Love Improv? Get a Life! : Trophy Wife

Love Improv? Get a Life!

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I was asked to write a guest blog from a coach’s POV for IOWest Harold Team’s USS Rock ‘n Roll’s Improv-o-riffic website.

I thought I would share it here:

LOVE IMPROV? GET A LIFE!
by Jill Alexander

A few weekends ago I was at a party full of improvisers. A lady-friend whom I perform with at IOWest and I were chatting about the new teams we would be coaching. She said “I love improv.”

“I love improv, too,” I added.

“Me, too,” chimed in another gal, who doesn’t perform, but is a big fan of the shows at IO. She then actually started to cry as she went into detail about how incredible she finds the art form and how talented anyone is who performs it. My husband grabbed my hand and pulled me to the car. His message was gentle yet clear: Enough.

This happens. We stand around in a circle and talk about how much we love improv.

“I like music.”
“Cake tastes good.”
“I love improv.”

Duh.

A friend recently mentioned to me the hypothesis put forth by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” that one can become an expert at something only after having devoted and practiced said thing for 10,000 hours.

I did the math: If I had been studying/practicing/performing improv for an average of 8 hours a week for the past 15 years, then I have been at it for about 6,000 hours.

At this rate, I still have about 12 years to go to become an expert. However, I don’t expect this to be the case. I never expect to get to a point where every scene I do is spontaneous, thoughtful, and entertaining. This persistent challenge is one of the things I love about it. 10,000 hours of practicing piano or foul shots or roofing might make one an expert at those tasks, but improv is different.

Improv is social.

If theater is art and improv is theater then yes, improv is art.

Most of us who go around gleefully stuttering “I love improv” are delighted not so much by the art of the thing, however, but by the sport of it: We get to do it with others.

We play together when we improvise. Sometimes we are troupes but more often we are teams. We warm-up. We drill. We compete at Theatresports or in cagematches. Comedysportz embraces the parallel fully with team uniforms and a referee whistling through matches.

Improv is something we do together. The variables are constantly shifting because there are other people involved here. I might be the greatest player in the world but unless I can work with others, my talents are useless. Teamwork. Group Mind. Multi-headed Monster. The sport of it, more than the art of it, is why I think people who like improv are always blabbing “I love improv.” We don’t have to do it all ourselves. We get to be a part of something bigger. That’s the best part.

Plus, while you’re developing your improv skills, you’re gaining Life Skills. You’re benefiting from the confidence that comes from trusting your instincts: You solve problems more quickly. You’re more comfortable in social situations. You’ve even become a better writer.

You love improv!

So, here you are, improvising. You’re in a group! You’re on a team! You have a show!

You’re now part of a community filled with people who love this as much as you do. And, oh boy, is it big. It extends way outside of the 8 people on your team; or the 30 people in your company; or the 70 main-stage players at your theater; or the 1000 students and performers who work on the same boards that you do. There are hundreds of thousands of people who love improv!

That’s why shelf-loads of books have been written on the art of comic improvisation and shelf-loads more are yet to be published. There are hundreds of schools of thought about “the rules” and varying philosophies on the best exercises to practice them. There are as many different improv forms as there are people teaching this stuff.

The trap here for Beyond-Beginner improvisers is that after having worked so hard to break down their own walls, they become comfortable with a particular group or style and slowly build those walls back up again. It happens: you fall in with a fellow group of performers who “get you.” You gel. You do great shows. You might even refer to each other as family. In the process, you close yourself off to new ideas. It’s a form of protectionism. After all, we’re only human.

I urge you to fight this instinct. It will only benefit you to be reminded that by exposing ourselves to as many styles and techniques as possible we become more well-rounded players (and well-rounded people.) The more we stretch our abilities and challenge what we know to be the “right” way to do things, the more tools we have at our fingertips. One method is just as credible as another. Long form vs. Short form. Relationship vs. The Game in the Scene. It all comes down to this: We like making stuff up with other people. It’s fun. The parameters may shift, but we’re all trying to get to that place where the muse takes over and speaks through us and utters the most poignant, effective, and hilarious lines. Whatever route we take to get that to happen is valid.

Beyond exposing yourself to as many ideas about improv as you can wrap your brain around, you can become a better player by Getting A Life.

Yes, pursuing further knowledge of the art is both noble and worthwhile. But you’ve got to do something besides just improvise. First off, you’ll starve. Secondly, your existence will fold in on itself and collapse. No joke.

The best improvisers I know are those who are well informed about the world. Having a general knowledge of current events, history, and literature will afford you a wealth of information that you can tap into if only to get your lizard-brain started. Your more evolved improv-brain will take over from there and fill in the blanks.

Listen to NPR. Pick up a newspaper. Read a book. Oh, and before you get that tattoo of your theater’s logo, hold on a sec. You’re an improviser, right? I bet you can think of something more original…

Also, have hobbies and friends outside of your scene. If the only theater you see is improv and you find your character work limited to those you’ve seen on SNL, its time to take an Extension class or join an intramural league. As improvisers, our job is to reflect on the stuff we see each day. If that stuff is limited to other improvisers and late night comedy shows, we’re working in a vacuum. You’ve got to feed the beast with outside information.

Additionally, if you haven’t trained as an actor, take an acting class. You can be a great actor without being a good improviser. But you CANNOT be a great improviser without being a good actor. You might be extremely clever and a technically brilliant player, but if you can’t embody a character and show us what you’re thinking, you’ll never be that fun to watch.

And one more thing – if you find yourself standing in a circle with other improvisers, all of whom are muttering “I love improv,” it’s probably time to go home.

Jill Alexander started improvising at Northwestern University with the renowned college troupe “The Mee-ow Show.” While in Chicago, she studied at ImprovOlympic and performed in Sue Your Ex under the direction of Matt Besser. Jill moved to LA to study at the Groundlings, where she spent a year performing with their Sunday Company. She also performed at ACME Comedy Theater with Houseful of Honkeys and in the west coast iteration of SITCOM. Jill taught improv at The Empty Stage Theater where she performed with Bucket and The Waterbrains. She has studied at UCB and currently teaches and coaches at IOWest. Jill is an original member of IO’s long-standing house Harold team Trophy Wife. She performs genre-styles with Kind Stranger Presents and writes bits and performs characters for The Friday 40. Jill is also in lots of TV commercials.

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