IF YOU ARE LIKE most young actors, you might have learned improvisation lessons in your theatre classes or rehearsals. Maybe you even perform in an improv troupe at your school.

In addition to the fun of improv, you’re probably also familiar with its practical applications in a production. You may have used improv to cover a missed entrance or a malfunctioning prop onstage. The improv skills of a quick-thinking, unflappable actor have saved many a show.

As a young actor, I was constantly asked to improvise, but no one ever really taught me how. It wasn’t until after graduate school that I realized the importance of improv and started to study it. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t seem like you need training to “make things up.” Yet, when actors step into the real world, they realize that most auditions involve improv. Improvisation and, more importantly, its associated skills are essential actor tools.

What you might not have considered before is how you can apply your improv skills to your everyday life. Right now, the world seems scary. Everything is uncertain, and you have no idea what is coming next. You must step up and push forward, even though the situation changes without warning. More than ever, you must care for others around you. This environment demands focus and courage.

For me, that sums up how many of us feel about COVID-19. Now, reread the last paragraph. Those same words are equally applicable for improvisers about to take the stage.

Improv gives you exciting new ways to rehearse and perform. More than that, it changes the way you walk through the world. You see, hear, move, interact, and collaborate differently because of improv’s lessons. As a theatre student and improviser, you possess a set of superpowers the world needs right now.

The pandemic has changed our lives in unexpected ways. More and more, I have turned to improv’s superpowers not only to help me through these challenges but also to help me thrive. Improvisation is not “winging it.” It’s a highly refined system of observing, connecting, and responding to a situation to move it forward in a positive way.

Improv’s lessons include teamwork, adaptability, and listening.
Improv’s lessons include teamwork, adaptability, and listening. Photo by Jim Talkington.

Here are just some of the superpowers improvisers keep in their back pocket at all times.

  • Focus
  • Concentration
  • Teamwork
  • Adaptability
  • Creativity
  • Listening
  • Saying “yes” instead of “no”
  • Confidence
  • Trust
  • Communication
  • Self-awareness
  • Spontaneity
  • Commitment
  • Risk
  • Inclusivity
  • An ability to create joy

Let’s look at a few of these superpowers more closely.

Be healthy and fit
One of the tenets we follow at my improv theatre is that we make the decision to be healthy and fit every time we enter the space. What that means is we choose to have a positive attitude. We don’t allow ourselves to be consumed by our troubles. We might have had a bad day, we might be tired, or we might just be grumpy, but we actively realign ourselves to be more positive. Positivity breeds positivity, and it’s essential for improvisation (and life).

Take care of each other
At our theatre, we have two signs on the wall outside the dressing room. They are the last things actors see before they hit the stage. They read: “Take Care of Each Other!” and “Make Each Other Look Good!” In improvisation, we shift focus from ourselves to our partners to make actions look intentional. Improv, unlike standup, is not a solo sport. It relies on everyone working together and supporting each other. To do that, we must:

  • Be present for each other.
  • Give up our idea for someone else’s.
  • Take care of our fellow actors.
  • Build a comfortable environment where bold choices are supported and encouraged.
  • Encourage an ensemble mentality.
  • Enter a scene willingly and pick it up when it stalls.
  • Praise often, give notes kindly, and take notes graciously.

Try using a similar approach offstage, and you might find it radically changes how you view your day-to-day interactions.

Obstacles, acceptance, and “yes, and”
Learning to accept other ideas is fundamental to improv. In improv, we call those ideas “offers” and think of them as “gifts.” When we receive a gift in real life, we receive it with enthusiasm, grace, and gratitude (even when we don’t necessarily like it). It’s the same in improv. We must accept what’s given to us before we can move our story forward. That’s the “yes.” The “and” is what you do with the gift. What can you add to the offer to make it better?

Those who embrace improv’s “yes, and” mentality find it’s a way of life. You walk through the world openly without fear of what lies ahead. Obstacles become new opportunities and unexpected offers make the road exciting.

The pandemic’s obstacles don’t make us want to say “yes.” However, saying “no” won’t change the situation. The trick, as strange as it sounds, is not to look at the pandemic as an obstacle but rather as an offer. What opportunities are we being offered?

The “yes” or acceptance of the pandemic is hard, but the “and” is where you can move your story forward. Have you learned new skills? Have you grown closer to your family or reconnected with far-away friends? Have you been creative in new ways? Find the silver linings — the “ands” — in your experience. Remember, constraint fosters creativity. Failing pushes us in new directions toward opportunities we might never have imagined on our own.

What’s right in front of you
Many beginning improvisers worry and say, “I can’t think of anything!” One of the secrets to improv is that you don’t need to think of anything. Look at what’s in front of you. What has just been offered to you, and how can you add to it? You don’t have to write the entire story or know the ending. Don’t worry about what’s to come. Don’t judge what you offer. Use what you have now and know it’s enough.

Improv provides a highly refined system of observing, connecting, and responding to a situation to move it forward in a positive way. Photo by Susan Doremus.

Improv asks us to change direction at a moment’s notice. We don’t want the audience to know we are uncertain. We may feel the sand shifting beneath our feet, but we don’t panic. We adjust gracefully. Good improvisers do this in real life too. They roll with the punches without letting people see them sweat because they know they can turn it into gold. How are you using your improv skills to adapt to your new situation? Where is the gold in your life?

Be present
Being present is one of the most important requirements for actors and especially for improvisers. If they aren’t present and paying attention, they can miss important details about their scene or character. The great Russian acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski said, “When we are onstage, we are in the here and now.” Improvisers and their partners must be in the moment together ― responding to each other, paying attention to the subtleties of each other’s offers, and responding accordingly.

In real life, there is no greater skill. Being present is the greatest gift you can give your friends and family. Look for the subtleties in the offers they give you, without worrying about yesterday or what tomorrow might bring. Find the joy of now.

Listening is an essential skill in improvisation. In a scripted play, it’s possible to “phone in” a performance by not really listening and responding. In improv, that doesn’t work. If you aren’t listening, you don’t know what’s being offered.

Your parents and teachers might say, “Are you listening to me?” The truth is no one taught you to listen. Listening requires practice. As we get older, we discover that one of the most essential aspects of our relationships is listening to our partners. Now, more than ever, we must listen to people ― especially when they are little boxes on a Zoom screen.

Here’s a bonus improv superpower: humor. Comic relief can pull us out of our darkest moments, so look for every opportunity to share gentle humor with love.

Thanks to your improv training, you were made for this moment. Let your improv superpowers guide your approach to life, and you’ll find yourself better equipped to handle all its challenges … onstage or off.

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