5 Things Improv Acting Taught Me That I Use Every Day
Bored with my day job in publishing years ago, I decided to take NYU's Acting 1 class for a much-needed creative outlet. I had done some theatre in high school and college — small parts where I could easily memorize my lines — and really enjoyed it. Improv was a different story. As an introvert with extroverted tendencies (like signing up for an improv class!), this was definitely breaking out of my comfort zone. But it's a class I think about all the time as I navigate many aspects of life. Here are five lessons it taught me.
1. Facing my fears. Every Wednesday I'd lament to my work wife that I dreaded going to class — my anxiety about performing in front of a bunch of strangers at its peak — and then never-fail Thursday morning I would talk about how FUN it was. It was a true adrenaline rush to go up in front of the class and act out scenarios I couldn't prepare for. The acting coach would say you're a hooker today and I'd be like, OK! I had to just go with it and couldn't control how I presented myself because the audience was WAITING. I got so much out of just facing my fears that if I hadn't done it or just given up, I would have let myself down, which would have been way worse.
2. Thinking on the spot. Without scripted lines I had to really play off my acting partner and prepare for my next move, based on his. This was one of the hardest parts of improv and it took me some time to get really creative with where I took my character. But the most challenging part of improv turned out to be the most fun when I was able to surprise or make the audience laugh. This kind of spontaneous creative thinking is really something so useful in everyday life when you have to problem-solve — or get out of doing the dishes.;)
3. Collaborating with others — and listening. I tend to be a solitary worker, head down, zoning out everything around me, but improv is really about teamwork and taking it all in. If my acting partner got stuck (or vice versa) I'd have to have her back and come up with something creative that would help her get unstuck. You really had to listen to the other person too. I started out thinking more about my next line than what she was saying and that's what made me not good. I used to pride myself on being a good listener until improv. Learning how to listen has been huge in conversations and even interviewing people for stories.
4. Open up and show emotions. I remember a scene where my character had to act really irrationally and it just did not feel natural to me. My coach would not let me off the hook. She really pushed me to show this wild rage that made the scene so much better (according to my fellow actors). I didn't feel comfortable opening up in that way (improv is kind of like therapy too, btw) but showing vulnerability is a huge life lesson, humbling too. My coach would always say you had to commit to a scene and to a character no matter what and I think there's something to that in any aspect of life.
5. Laughing at myself. I mean, I really had to laugh at myself. And there was something refreshing about acting in front of strangers vs. taking the class with a friend. We were all in it together and we all had successes and misses and that was ok. Letting go of any perfectionism was one of the best things I learned from improv. You had to really let loose and be as silly and brave as possible and that's a lesson I've taken with me in so many challenges since.
Theresa Gonzalez is a content creator based in San Francisco and the author of Sunday Sews. She's a lover of all things design and spends most of her days momming her little one Matilda.