It's easy to treat performative disciplines like improvisational theatre as something people do outside their routine activities — meetings at work, talks with friends and family, romantic encounters, etc. But New York City improv coach Chris Gethard says that grasping some basic improv skills will improve your performance in all areas of life. That's because the principles of improve are fundamental: slow down, listen, have integrity, and be positive.
In comedy and in life, there's a temptation to do exactly what people expect of us. Satisfying the desires of others is a direct path toward validation, and typically the path of least resistance, whether dealing with coworkers, friends, family, or romantic partners. But there's something more important that fulfilling expectations, says Gethard. Listening to what others have to say and responding positively — taking a "yes, and..." approach in improv parlance — results in a more authentic exchange and, therefore, a more authentic response.
Knowing basic improv technique also helps one stay in the moment and live the present fully. While performance and theatre turn on storytelling, improv can be stifled when actors try too hard to create a narrative. Instead of discussing make-believe past or future events — e.g. "you won't believe what happened to me yesterday," or "you won't believe where I'm going to tomorrow" — actors should stay in the moment. The same is true in life, says Gethard. When we stay in the moment with people and respond openly and positively, we'll get better results. Gethard's book is A Bad Idea I'm About to Do: True Tales of Seriously Poor Judgement and Stunningly Awkward Adventure.
Chris Gethard: I think the key to improv is always listening. It’s embracing. It’s positivity. It’s hearing things and not shutting them down. It’s trying to find ways to make them work. And in the business world I would imagine that’s very invaluable, the idea that it’s very frustrating just to be told no all the time. Improv really revolves around the idea of like whatever you come at me with I’m going to say yes to it. That’s our reality. Let’s get to work. Let’s start there. So just the idea of saying yes to each other and not shutting down ideas, seeing if there’s way to make ideas workable, making that your default setting of like I really want to respect what you’re saying. See if there’s a way to take it somewhere else versus here’s all the things that are wrong with it. I think it’s just a very positive mentality. So I think a lot of people that come across it get very addicted to it because it does feel different, especially the New Yorker. We’re just used to a world where everybody’s kind of grumpy all the time and moving fast. They don’t want to deal with each other. The idea of showing any emotion in public, not good. The idea of slowing down to deal with someone else’s ideas and emotions, not good. Like we’re New Yorkers. We want to get where we’re going. So I think improv really looks at a side of life that’s like well what if we let all that go for a little while and just really work on sort of positively embracing each other’s ideas and really listening hard to what other people have to say. So it’s a pretty beautiful thing when it’s going right.
Very often what you’ll see happen in improv class is when people get nervous about how it’s going is they’ll start saying hey when dad gets home he’s going to be really mad. Or they’ll say like hey, when we get to Reno stuff’s really going to hit the fan. And they start saying like hey this thing that’s going to happen or this thing like hey, remember when you did that thing back then? I’m really made about it. I think one of the things about listening is that it’s always at its most powerful when it’s present, when it’s right here, when it’s right now. And that’s a lesson about improv that I think just made me a much more social person. Like it just made me like when I would go have pitch meetings I was just able to have it better even in my personal life.
I got – when I started really thinking hard about these improv lessons not to get weird but like my dating like just got so much better because the thing I always stress that I think applies to just any conversation I always ask people to answer these three questions when they’re improvising. Why these people? Why right here? Why right now? I always just drill that. Why these people? Why right here? Why right now? Meaning if you’re in a scene and there’s two people and you’re talking about people who aren’t here like they’re not here. They probably aren’t the most interesting thing for an audience to hear about. If you’re talking about a different location than the one the scene is taking place in then why isn’t the scene unfolding there? It sounds more interesting. Why are you teasing an audience? So and another thing to people will often go like hey, you’ll never believe what’s inside this briefcase. And it’s like well that’s invisible. Let’s just talk to each other – us, things we can find common ground whether that’s positive things, disagreements we might actually have. Why are these people in this location at this time? Why is this the scene we’re choosing to show the audience. So the more we can just make things present between the people right there, the less the audience has to suspend their disbelief and imagine the better the listening is going to be and the harder it’s going to hit.
And what we find when that happens in improv is you’re simple choices can actually get huge reactions because if you and I were doing a scene and I came at you and started the scene by saying you know what? Like everything that happened in Canada we can never talk about it again. That sounds like it has really high stakes. But now the audience has to figure out well what happened in Canada and why are we all scared of it. Whereas if I just looked at you and said hey, I’m so scared and I need you to help me through it. That sounds like a more vague thing with less comedic potential but an audience will go they’re scared and you have to help each other. Why? Why are they scared? They’re scared right now and they can help each other. Great. And it’s a human connection that we can latch on to. So being present in the moment with each other, nothing else you’re going to work out. It’s going to make your improv scene so much better. I feel it makes a lot of conversations better too.
I’m a really big fan mainly of the phrase slow is fast. Slow is fast. And what I mean by that is like especially in the context I can speak to it in the context of people who go on stage which is like we forget that when we’re on stage and we’re improvising we’re bouncing ideas back and forth. An audience it’s really hard for them to keep up and they don’t really know why we’re making the choices we’re making because we’re trained in this and we have classes in this. So we can go so – to them it looks like it’s moving a million miles an hour. Like most people when they see an improv show if they like it they remember that first one as being like the best show they ever saw. And it probably was and it’s probably just that these people knew what they were doing so much. So one of the things I always like to stress about slowing down, slowing down, slowing down is this idea it’s actually something that I learned from my wife who uses this phrase because she is an aerialist. She was an aerialist for many years. She was a dancer who would do all this work with harnesses and rigging and flying around from the ceiling.
And she told me that phrase and it stuck in my head because she always said like if you have a problem with your harness you want to get it fixed fast so you can go back to the act. You want to get back in there. But remember to the people watching like no matter how long it takes, no matter how slow you move you’re still flying around in the sky. And I think for improv that really applies well. No matter how – we can really take a breath. The audience is going to be blown away if we do our jobs right. We don’t need to move fast to impress them. Like the desire is just joke, joke, joke, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh and you can smother it. That’s another think I often say about it too is like we have to remember when we’re improvising like it’s sort of like building a fire. Like you have to start with the kindling. You have to start with just a spark. You can’t just throw the big logs on. If you can just try to pile anything on it’s not going to go anywhere. The audience is going to smell a rat and you’re not going to be with it. So for me I think the advice I can give anyone is just remember someone who is a professional doing what they do at any speed is probably going to blow away a novice. They’re probably going to have total control.
And when we rush we actually can give that away. And when we consciously take a breath and slow down it demonstrates a confidence and mastery of our craft which I know is a very pretentious thing to say but that’s what I used to say to people when I taught them in their improv acting classes which can be kind of pretentious. So that’s the main thing is remember what we do is impressive. We don’t need to speed through it because they’re going to be blown away as long as we do it with integrity.