When most people see (good) improvisation, they don’t believe that it’s made up in the moment. There will always be a cynicism that the performers have somehow scripted a whole play or comedy show then found ways to change it just enough to fit in audience suggestions and create the illusion that it’s made up on the spot. I’m always thrilled to hear this criticism because it means that we’re achieving what we want; making our shows look like they’ve been carefully edited, rehearsed and directed.
Fitness is an appropriate metaphor for improv. It’s a seemingly simple thing to run a marathon - just run 26 miles! - or to lift a heavy weight - just lift it! - but the work ahead of those achievements is huge. You’ll need to run nearly every day with increasing mileage, speed and attention to form, or lift weights and build muscle mass over a long period of time, changing your diet and putting many hours in.
When we teach improvisation to new students, I’m amazed at how hard it can be for some people to have a totally normal conversation or talk nonsense in front of a small audience. The challenge is not the act itself of course, but the many things we have to cope with thinking at the same time. Am I doing it wrong? Will people think I look foolish? Why am I doing this? What will I get out of it? How does this relate to my life and my work?
Kids don’t generally have this problem, and a NASA study tells us that 5-year-olds operate at 98% in the ‘genius category of imagination’, 15-year-olds at 12% and by adulthood we have fallen to 2%. Our overthinking, self-judgement and perfectionism (especially if we are socialised female) can be totally overwhelming.
What then, can we do about it? Improv will help you embrace the genius that you had as a kid; that’s why so much of our work feels like being back in the playground! Everything is gamified so that important creative work doesn’t actually feel like work. We’re so amazed by the simplicity of that idea that we mistrust it, just as some audiences cannot believe that our shows are improvised.
I suggest you start small and easy; take an improv workshop, then try one of our games in your next team meeting. It’s like embarking on your first couch to 5k, or taking an intro to weightlifting. Bringing actual creative thinking into your workplace or your life at large is simple. The only hard bit is forming new habits of thinking, new ways to override our adult cynicism and extending that generosity to our friends and colleagues.