Do you remember a situation, personal or professional, where you were put on the spot and felt a bit uncomfortable? I can recount a few instances over the years that made my heart jump a bit. Karaoke is one example. I’m not a particularly good singer and having to perform in front of others does make me a bit nervous. Or I remember these first few weeks at Business School where I felt self-conscious about my Austrian accent and hence always felt my heart beat a bit faster before raising my hand in class. But why? I guess I’m someone who likes to be in control. I’m not a control freak but I do like to have a plan and some structure in my life. I’m also someone who thinks about how others might perceive me. I run around with my personal screen, evaluating if I lived up to and ideally exceeded expectations – most of the time my own high expectations. I always admired people who completely enjoy the thrill of the unexpected or maybe just don’t care all too much what others think about them. Wouldn’t it be so liberating if I could stop overthinking in certain situations and just do? So I decided that I want to learn how to enjoy not being in control — and decided to take improv theatre lessons during our one-month stay Berlin.
Why improv theatre? Improv theatre means reacting spontaneously. There are a few basic rules and elements that should be reflected in a scene on stage. For example, the audience picks a place, a relationship, a profession, or a tricky situation. But that’s about it. The actors, inspired by the chosen topic, get going. One person starts with a statement, the other builds on it. There is no script just spontaneous ideas that eventually make up the entire story. No play is the same. Everything feels new – and is very unpredictable. This sounded exactly like what I needed!
I signed up for two separate improv courses. One was a weekly 3-hour improv evening class. The other was a 2-day intensive weekend workshop. I might as well go all in! The warm up exercises at the beginning of each session (word association games or word-by-word group story telling) were fun. But then the “easy” part was over. It was time to get up on stage. I was nervous to take the leap and go up without preparing. While some others were kicking things off on stage, I immediately started thinking about the type of character I should or could play. If I at least settled on a few characteristics beforehand it would be easier (so I thought). But there was barely enough time to think! And that’s the whole point. A topic is chosen and then it’s “go”. Plus, even if you have already made up the perfect story in your mind it’s useless. The interaction on stage will take it in a totally different direction. So there I was on stage, my mind racing back and forth between my real me and my “new me”. Somehow, words were coming out of my mouth and I created a little story with my co-player. And parts of it turned out to be really entertaining. We laughed our heads off. That felt really good. At least some potential to build on! But at times I was pulled back into the real world and I was trying to make out the faces in the audience for a reaction. Could I have been more funny? More surprising? More witty? More interesting? So many maybe’s, could have’s and should have’s? Why? Why not just go with the flow and be happy with what has happened? After all, this whole thing is about experiencing something completely new. That’s when I realised that it will take some serious work to lower the voice of my “ego”. The ego looks for validation. The ego looks for a pat on the back. The ego compares and wants to do better.
I left my first couple of lessons with mixed feelings. On the one hand I was proud that I had pushed myself into new territory, on the other hand I thought that I could have done better. But I had the feeling that I was on to something, beginning to discover a new side of myself. As the classes continued I learned about different types of games, how to take on different roles (high vs. low status, different emotional states) and storytelling. All of these elements were aiming at one thing: letting go. Letting go of established thought and behavioral patterns, structures and expectations. My nervousness of “just putting myself out there” decreased with each training session. I must admit that it hasn’t completely disappeared quite yet but I became more at ease with going with the flow and letting go of my self censorship. The more I let go the more I felt present and, interestingly, also more creative.
What’s best about improv is that it is a very collaborative game. The main rule of improv is to let the other person shine. Everything should be approached with a “yes, and…” attitude. You always build on what the other person says, if you like it or not. Instead of being the smartest, the funniest or the boldest the main advice in improv is to “do the obvious”. Don’t try to come up with the best or most original idea. If you’d just steam roll everyone else with your, let’s say, smart idea, no story would develop. It’s all about co-creating, listening to and building on each other. That’s when the best stories come to life. Nobody wins, nobody loses. Improv is about appreciating what already exists versus thinking about what’s lacking. That’s a neat concept. Focus on your strengths and not only on your weaknesses. And everyone can do it, regardless of cultural, socio-economic or professional background. Everyone can play, learn and feel good. Seems to me like we all should play more improv games in our lives … For me, a journey that’s worth continuing.