By: Chris McCron
Improv has a weird magic associated with it. Somewhere between the laughter, stage fright, and "culty goodness" , people find social situations are suddenly easier for them. Small talk, being vulnerable, and flirting become smoother after taking improv classes. Why is it that experience with improv makes socializing feel less daunting?
It's not too outlandish. It just takes believing that, oh say, improv is a high-tech social simulator that allows us to live in alternate realities for 2-3 minutes at a time. See? Not very hard to swallow.
Together, we socialize in dreamt up realities , and we get to figure out what appropriate behaviour looks like within these imagined worlds. If everyone is pretending to be octopi impregnated by deadbeat seahorses, you'd better find a way to fit in, Dr. Jellyfish.
Having a good grip on how to socialize in improv scenes is a lot like surviving ambiguous social situations off stage. Showing up solo to a party, confessing your feelings to a crush, and asserting yourself in the boardroom all require us going "off script" in ways that we might not be entirely comfortable with. And that's okay. Our high-tech social simulator has many lessons to teach us.
Learn Mistakes are Inevitable & Non-Lethal
If you do improv like me, you produce a good scene once every few years. While waiting on this unicorn scene, you make mountains of mistakes. And you survive every one of them.
The mistakes we make in improv brazen us to mistakes offstage. Faux-pas at friendly gatherings don't bother you anymore. You've learned to love the taste of your own foot in your mouth, thanks to hundreds of failure-filled hours logged in simulation.
Entering Conversation Becomes Easy
Your improv instructor awakens you from your simulation. "Where were you? Who were you? What were you doing?" You realize you had no idea what that scene was about. It's difficult to sculpt theatre out of thin air. Establishing the who, what, and where of a scene is an improv must, to make a coherent new reality.
This is similar to entering conversation in an uncomfortable situation. Focusing on who you're getting to know and what direction the conversation is going in helps you to filter out the noise that doesn't ultimately matter, including your anxieties. After ingraining the who/what/where rule, you'll be conversing with beautiful strangers in coffee shops about their totally cool Led Zeppelin t-shirt in no time.
Bantering Like a Boss
Once you've established your who, what, where, this simulation needs to be kept alive. What makes this new world remarkable and fun? What will make your conversation worth remembering? In improv, finding "the game of the scene" usually kicks things into a higher gear. I define the game of the scene as the first unusual thing that occurs. In this scene, can you smell things you don't normally smell (e.g., Two hunters that "...can smell this deer's crippling self-doubt")? Great! Maybe you'll create a game about a world where we can smell the intimate details of the lives of others.
Back in reality, if we want our conversation with the beautiful coffee shop stranger to keep going, we'll need to find something to talk about other than their Led Zeppelin t-shirt. Maybe they tell you they were an awkward classic rock fan in high school. Perfect. This conversation is going to be a game about who was lamer in high school. Finding the game in improv scenes cultivates a playfulness in you that you can turn on to carry you through the uncertain social terrain you'll encounter offstage.
Improv is an exceptional form of theatre that allows us to experience new ways of being. If you're not confident, you can pretend to be for two minutes. If you're quiet, a good improv instructor will get you to scream at the top of your lungs. If you don't like being in charge, you'll play a character that exudes authority.
Ultimately, through the controlled discomfort of improv, we can step off the stage more resilient, versatile, and capable of navigating our social lives. And after a few classes, I'm sure many beautiful coffee shop strangers would love to meet the new you.