Ask anyone about a hobby or interest they’re particularly passionate about, and at some point you’ll probably hear a variation of the phrase “I think everyone should do this.”
My own list over the years has included: reading, traveling, learning languages, and studying history. You don’t have to squint very hard to notice that, if I were to enforce that list, I would reshape the world in my own image.
This is, of course, why I do not believe in universal prescriptives. (I try not to, anyway.) Part of recognizing the unique qualities and interests of every human individual is respecting these variations and differences do not accommodate one-size-fits-all solutions. It takes a dangerously myopic person to literally believe that everyone should dedicate themselves to their own personal passion.
Plus, there’s only so much time, and each new interest comes with an opportunity cost. There are too many good and worthwhile things for anyone to ever be able to do them all, especially when that list includes things like “spending quality time with friends and family,” and “earning a living wage.”
What we’re really saying when we tell others that “this will make you a better person” is that it has made us a better person. It has helped us understand ourselves and the people around us more completely. And that certainly is important information to hear.
So with all that out of the way, I’d like to share a new interest of mine that I think everyone should do, because, if practiced joyfully and enthusiastically and conscientiously, it may make them a better human being to those around them.
That thing is improv comedy.
I didn’t start improv because I wanted to be a better person. I started because I watched the show Barry, and something about the acting classes resonated. It wasn’t just something I wanted to do, it was something I felt sure I could do, something that would help me be a better writer—and yes, maybe a better person, too.
With one term of improv classes out of the way, I can say with confidence that it has been all that and more. My whole class has been gushing about it so much that it’s almost become a cliché. There’s a lot I could say about improv, but I’ll get to some of those life lessons later. In the meantime, please enjoy my list of ways that improv has helped me be a better person.
It forced me to become comfortable with discomfort.
You may or may not be familiar with the concept of “antifragility,” but it goes like this: fragile systems break under stress, but antifragile systems grow stronger when tested. Our immune system is antifragile, as are our bodies generally, which is why exercise helps us resist injury, even though it puts our bodies under more strain.
Improv is an antifragile system for self esteem. I’ve failed a lot in improv. But the class moves too fast for me to get hung up on any one thing, and I have lots of opportunity to right the ship and try again. After a while, I noticed my failures bothered me less. It’s still uncomfortable, but it’s manageable.
It taught me to be a better and more generous listener.
Improv is about cooperation. That means listening to what your classmates and scene partners are doing so that you can riff off each other, play with ideas, and create something hilarious and convincing on stage.
I’ve seen the same thing happen with groups of musicians playing together. In improv, you have to be hyper-aware of the people around you, what they’re doing, and how you can support them and make them better. If you’re selfish in improv, you only make it worse for yourself.
It encouraged me to explore other perspectives.
I get excited by character work in improv, but I have a hard time thinking of good people and situations. If you’re placed in a few dozen scenes every class, you quickly run out of options if you’re only yourself every scene—or if you only have two or three other characters up your sleeve.
I also enjoy seeing what characters other improvisors bring to the table. When I draw from my own experience, I quickly feel that what I’m doing is obvious and maybe a little lame. But seeing what my classmates come up with not only gives me new ideas, it pushes me to dig deeper for a new angle rather than settling for stereotypes.
It got me out of my own head.
Even when I’m doing my best to listen to others and explore other viewpoints, the way I respond to others is still grounded in my background and preferences. I’m still myself, listening to what another persons says or thinks and measuring it against what I might say or think.
Playing with other characters isn’t just a chance to understand other people, it’s a way to place yourself in their shoes. It’s a way to set your own love of (for instance) baseball aside, and instead become a person whose sole passion in life is association football. Real mind-bender, that.
It built my trust in other people.
An improv class is like a series of trust falls with your group. If you give them something good, you trust they will be able to do something with it. If you have nothing, you trust them to send something your way.
There’s also an element of self-sacrifice. I’ve stepped forward with a less-than-perfect idea to spare someone else from an awkward moment, and it’s often a way of buying time for the group. That’s an incredible amount of support for and from a group of people you may only have met a class or two ago.
It helped me become a better editor.
One of the first lessons we had in class had to do with editing. Some of your fellow improvisors are doing a scene together, and you have to decide when you want to jump in. The natural instinct is to hang back, to let the people on stage tell their scene, even if they’re struggling.
In fact, the best thing you can do for your fellow improvisors is to know when to edit well. If they just got a huge laugh, jump in and let them leave on a high note. If they’re having a hard time getting their scene off the ground, don’t abandon them on stage. Even if you don’t know what you’re going to do right away, focusing on the edits is a way to listen to the scene and give the audience a better experience.
Improv isn’t literally for everyone, of course. In fact, it’s an exceptionally poor thing to impose on anyone who isn’t committed to it. Because so much of improv is built on a foundation of trust and a spirit of play, having someone in the group who isn’t there because they want to be can sour the experience for everyone.
But if you do feel stuck inside yourself, struggling to move past deep-seated biases and prejudices, agonizing over your own imperfections, or overcome by social anxiety, you should try improv.
I can’t promise it will make you better.
But it helped me.