Whenever I teach improvisation, someone will inevitably ask, “How do you rehearse improv? Isn’t it all just made up?” The answer usually doesn’t go over well. I tell them, “Improvisers need to rehearse to relearn how to not know what they’re doing.”
See? I told you it wouldn’t go over well.
Now, if you’re like almost every one I’ve told this to, you’re probably shaking your head at such nonsense. But trust me, it’s true. In fact, the rehearsal process for improv is probably more natural than what other actors do—like, for example, memorizing reams of other people’s words. On the other hand, every one of us, as social human beings, improvises our way through the day but rarely ever recites a memorized line.
Rehearsing improv is merely reacquainting ourselves with the instinct to react to the environment around us. A play might be thought of as an elaborate dance, a meticulous reconstruction of a particular series of events. Improv, on the other hand, is more like a sport for which the players practice their reactions and hone their skills to prepare for the unpredictability of a game/performance.
When I was considerably younger and sporting a great deal more hair, I first experienced improv up close and personal through a rehearsal.
Carleton College had a number of student run “clubs,” ranging from chess to hunting. The newest club when I was a first-year student was an improv troupe. I saw a performance of theirs in our student union where the group managed to offend more people in three words than I ever imagined possible. In a scene about fighting a whale, one of the performers shook his fist at the heavens and screamed, “Fuck you, God!”
At such a politically correct school, this was (a) incredibly offensive, (b) ridiculously stupid, and (c) fucking hilarious. And I don’t mean funny ha-ha or funny strange. I mean funny dickhead. It was quite an event.
Later, I ended up at one of their open rehearsals, which I believe was a thinly veiled PR measure after the “incident.” As I sat in the back, I smirked at what they were doing. This time, I was smirking from funny strange—a bunch of people were running around with great speed and volume, playing. This was the essence of ridiculousness.
I should not have been surprised when they enlisted some of us who were watching to perform with them. We acquiesced without too much grumbling, as there was a contagious intoxication to the whole ridiculousness of it all.
We were lined up and told to tell a story as a group, each individual in the specific genre he or she was given. I got rap. Before I had time to think “What the hell am I doing?” they pointed at me, and I started rapping, "straw-straw-straw-str-str-str-STRAWberries" in my best Beastie Boys kind of way, trying hard to just match their level of ridiculousity.
It was only afterward when the leader of the group tracked me down and insisted I join that I realized the cascade of laughter that followed my performance wasn’t at me but with me.
Looking back, I see that moment with particular significance. For years after that I would practice, study, and talk a lot about improv. The more I learned, the more I realized that the art form depended on cultivating moments like my first open rehearsal.
Improvisers describe moments like that first rehearsal as “out of your head” when you let your heart guide you. On its face, this notion is as absurd as the material that resulted when we managed to do it right. For years, I played along with this “not thinking” notion of performing, only because I was so new to the skill that it played to my strengths—I had no idea what I was doing anyway.
In our everyday life, we tend to be driven by our heads. Thinking our way out of scary, novel situations is a primary—and usually effective—defense mechanism against the unknown. You can hardly blame us. For decades, we are subjected to creepy classrooms and tense, on-the-job situations that condition us to know, remember, come up with the right answer. To answer incorrectly is unacceptable and punishable by acute embarrassment, if not worse.
That’s why little kids so good at goofing off, at playing, at improv, because they only react with their hearts. They’re engaging the world with honesty, unaware of any particular good or proper way. This oneness they maintain with their bodies and environment protects them from adult maladies like panic attacks.
Adults only seem to return to this instinctual, heart-led state in situations where they’re completely comfortable or utterly panicked. In either state, there’s simply no time or reason to think our way out. We just react. Not coincidentally, it is precisely these moments we try to recreate as performing artists because they are so fundamentally true. When we open ourselves up—crying or laughing—we are truly ourselves, having stripped away the pretense of finding the “right” way or answer. And truth, reflected by others, is something people pay to see.
I had a hard time accepting this. I bristled at this concept of letting go of your head onstage. Finally, while I was working with some particularly gifted improvisers at the Brave New Workshop, I gave voice to my doubts to this supposed philosophy. “You can’t get completely ‘outside of your head,’” I complained, “and not think onstage or we’d all go ‘blah, blah, blah,’ rend our clothes, and throw our feces at the audience.” They would smile, shake their heads, and repeat “heart not head.”
I would have protested more but (a) they were incredibly good at what they did, (b) I didn’t have a better way to do it, and (c) whatever we were doing was pretty fucking funny. Just like that first rehearsal, I found myself playing along again. Eventually, I realized, that was precisely the point.
Which brings us back to rehearsal. The only way to truly develop this subordination of thought is to get it in our bones. Or to be more exact, to get it in our muscles. Like any physical activity repeated over and over, improvisation develops certain muscle memories in the body. Like a tennis player miming the follow-through of a ground stroke so that they can accurately react without thinking, so too do improvisers and actors alike develop memories in their body to react constructively in a performance.
And so we play. And play and play and play. We do stupid warm-ups: “Zip Zap Zop,” “Seven Things,” “What are You Doing?” We do nonsensical games called “Story, Story, Death,” “Dueling Playwrights,” or “Alphabet Line,” or intricate long-form improvisations like “Harold,” “Montage,” or “Day in the Life.” We do scene after scene after scene.
When we catch ourselves not playing, when things inevitably go wrong, we talk through what happened. Sometimes this is expressed in terms of rules (e.g., no blocking), but essentially it’s all just a reminder to play and to react.
There’s a strange presentness in a heightened state of reaction. While usually very fleeting, the relief from worries about the future or regrets about the past is quite invigorating. What’s even more transcendent is when you’re able to bring that state of being off the stage and into your life.
Regardless of where it takes place, improvisation is a thoroughly an acquirable skill like memorizing lines or hitting a tennis ball. We all might differ in how we execute it, but the path remains the same for all of us: Practice. Practice. Practice until you can be spontaneous without thinking about it.❦