Styles: Improv!

We finally completed a term of improv comedy with Monkey Toast a couple of weeks ago. I can enthusiastically confirm that I will be joining for the next level.

We covered such a lot, and it’s very difficult to write about how great it was without turning it into a didactic account of what we learned (also: spoilers!), or list the jokes that formed in the moments which you very much have to be there for. Improv humour isn’t portable outside of the people who experienced it with you. You had to be there, man.

The funny thing about improv (apart from improv itself) is that many of the audiences are made up of other people who have studied improv. Most of the shows I’ve been to canvas their audiences to get an idea of how well they should explain what’s about to happen, or possibly just for interest (I’m nowhere near good enough or experienced enough to be in a show). Maybe they do it so they can make highly speculative financial predictions on attendance and profit. Who knows.

I wrote before about some of my reasons for taking on such a challenge, and what I might hope to get out of it (if not a troupe of my very own to be a part of). Paul (our teacher) repeatedly mentioned that one of the side effects would be long-lasting friendships with the people you improv (and improve, as I just typoed) with.

This time I thought I’d cover some of the other interesting side effects of training my brain to produce improvised comedy.

Learning to listen to people would have to be number one. I think it was Chekhov’s plays in which you can read that each character is merely talking through their own issues; no one is really listening to each other and most actual exchanges are coincidence. They are an exercise in demonstrative solipsism. But in this, they are also a perfect example of how many of us, myself included, live our lives. With so much stimulus it’s hard to listen to all of it, and this ‘sensory overload’ can lead us to find sanity in not really listening at all for most of the time. Many of us will spend a lifetime unlearning that and figuring out how to listen safely, so that we aren’t overwhelmed and nor are we selfishly barrelling on.

two women having conversation on stairs
Photo by Buro Millennial on

One big issue I often had was with confidence and speech. I now seem to find words more quickly – the ones I wanted to use, sure, but also an endless string of related words: synonyms, antonyms, and words which sort of mean the same but in the wrong context. I’m less worried about choosing the right one immediately and often plump for one that’s quasi-appropriate as a placeholder and either stick with it or bother to correct it later if someone looks confused. This has helped me to overcome the long, uncomfortable periods of time where I couldn’t find the right word so just stammered. Like my recent post, better to make a choice and have it be a little wrong than everyone waiting on you to finish your bloody sentence.

The idea of decision making is a really interesting one to explore through improv. I would highly recommend anyone involved in intensive decision-making to give it a go. Absorbing information quickly in order to spit out products and trusting the direction it then sails in is tantamount to success. It is the recipe for side-splitting laughter and beautiful chaos.

I don’t know what was happening here, or why my face is like that. Just go with it. About half of the improv level 1 class here (with Mr. Foxcroft) – and there were four or five more women too!

I’ve also uncovered a more central worry of mine that I spend a lot of time feeling quite overwhelmed at the things happening around me. In being so focused much of the time, I take on a lot of information and store it on the surface so it’s to hand – this is a large part of the improv process. But the sheer quantity of possibilities can feel quite crippling. Paul has suggested I go back and recap things a bit more, which may well help, but I think this would be a good tactic to take into meetings at work, just so I make sure I leave with the right end of everything.

There’s more, obviously – mostly technique and tricks for producing comedy, and suffice to say we (Level 1 grads) already view improv very differently. But these are just some of the life lessons I’ve taken away from 8 weeks of intensive improvising! What new appreciations, insights and improvements will come from another 8?

I am on the edge of my seat.

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