As my cohort neared its end in January, it dawned on me that in the past 5 months I’d had very little people interaction in a format not involving a computer screen. Meetup.com seemed like a good place to search for something to do, but what did I actually want to do? Somewhere in that line of thinking I was inspired by the many episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyways? I watched. They helped me through the months with laughs and a way to separate from the exercises and assessments. So before I’d realized it, I had hit the “attend” button on an 8 week stand up improv class. I thought I was just signing up for something fun that would provide real world engagement with other humans. I had no idea I’d probably made one of the best choices of my adult life!
It’s pretty much all there in the statement. Mistakes happen. Or do they? Okay, yes, there are things that are contextually wrong and should be addressed (did you remember your “use strict” today?). But there are also many instances in life where it just doesn’t matter. So what if the server who brought out your food said “Enjoy your meal” and your reply was “Thanks, you too!”?
In the context of the class, there really is never a “mistake”. There is 100% a choice in the moment to freeze up over the perception that something was wrong, or to roll with it and own it. The scene never stops and there has to be trust that the people in it with us have our backs. Honestly, Bob Ross had the right idea that we don’t make mistakes, we make happy accidents.
Breathing and taking a break when needed
When the class first started, everyone was pretty much jumping into the scenes and not taking a moment to get some oxygen to the brain. And then the dialog was go go go! As we’ve practiced, we’re constantly improving at it being okay to take a moment and breath. It’s okay for the dialog to ebb and flow. It’s okay to have silence. Just because it’s made up doesn’t mean we can’t engage naturally, or dare I say, conversationally!
Giving and receiving
I think we can all probably recall times in conversation, before someone has finished a thought we’ve front-loaded an idea of our own with which to respond. When making things up on the spot with other people that doesn’t really work. The dialog is spontaneous, not entirely rational, you have to take the time to fully hear and accept everything that was said! Improv isn’t about denial or saying no, it’s about “yes, and…”, and continuing to grow the thing you’re sharing with others in the moment. Your character can be selfish, but you can’t.
Establishing and building relationships
While you’re trying to listen and receive, you’re also figuring out what relationship the person you’re engaging with has with you. Are they a parent, a lover, a stranger, a store clerk, someone else entirely? How are you going to interact with that person? What is the backstory between you? And when you’ve decided on that relationship, can you make the choice to engage in that manner and effectively gift that to them for their use? I find this to be one of the more complex ideas we’ve been working on. It highlights how I have to tune out all distractions and be fully present in the moment or I’m very likely to miss something.
Imagine if you will, you’re in the midst of a conversation with someone. It’s going like this:
Friend: This is a great place to get food, how’d you find it?
You: I was on Yelp and it came up.
Suddenly a third party shouts out “New choice!” which leads to:
You: I heard about it from a friend.
You: I drove past it on the way home from work and it looked tasty.
You: I summoned it from the depths of the ocean in hopes of winning your favor.
Hopefully that gives a good idea of the game and how there were times where the preconceived idea isn’t the one we got to use. When you go through the second/third/nth ideas you suddenly find yourself in a part of your brain you haven’t visited recently. And there’s some pretty cool and bizarre stuff there! Definitely some weird stuff. Make sure you bring a friend when you visit.
Feeling the call
There’s an idea that’s come up many times during the class: feeling the call. A way that might be described is the moment where you’re inspired in some way and you step up and engage, regardless of the hesitation you might feel. It means taking a risk, being vulnerable, taking a chance that what you try to do is better than hanging back in the shadows. In the scope of the stage, you step into the scene because something about the idea of ‘chickens’ inspired you and you want to tell a story. In a much larger and real world scope, I suspect many of us felt some kind of call when we chose to pursue and enroll in Rithm.
You, me, and the genius between us
When with another performer, if it’s going well, there’s actually a third entity there with both of you: the ghost of creative genius (oooOOOoOOooOOOoO!). It links you, makes you more than either of you could be alone. And like looking into each other’s eyes and seeing each other’s souls, the ghost of creative genius lets you see into each other’s minds and work together as one. It’s the embodiment of collaboration. Or the start of a Borg collective…
Since starting on the path to becoming a software engineer, I’ve observed in my colleagues, peers, and mentors many positive traits such as creativity, resourcefulness, being supportive and willing to collaborate with each other, the ability to adapt, and a strong sense of curiosity. The prevalence of these traits in the community creates a sense of belonging and reinforces the idea that this career change was indeed the correct one.
When I stepped into my improv class, I was simply looking for a place to re-engage with other humans. However, after only a few months I see strong correlations between the ideas I’m learning in class and the skills I perceive as necessary to be a quality software engineer: collaborating in the moment, fully listening and receiving ideas with a “yes, and…” to help the ideas grow, minimizing attachment to ideas, flexibility, adaptability, learning to better move past mistakes, and stepping up when feeling inspired in spite of fears or hesitations.
I’m just going to say it: You should take an improv class. I think it’s an experience worth having at least once. It’s wildly uncomfortable at first, and likely to be way out of your comfort zone. But the potential for learning and growth is absolutely worth it. I mean, why not hone your skills and have a laugh in the process?