Written by Elizabeth Hallal As a second-year musical theatre major, I am so thankful to be studying performance art everyday of my life. It’s challenging at times, but it’s worth it, because I LOVE what I do. I love analyzing scripts; I love asking questions; I love figuring out the best ways to manipulate my voice in order to make a high note way easier for me. All of these things fulfill my boundless curiosity. There is something to be found in every aspect or style of theatre and one style that has become a favorite technique used in comedy and pop-culture is improv.
Improv, or improvisation, is a form of theatre where everything is made up in the moment (the plot, the characters, the setting, the dialogue). It takes some serious creative ability and a good sense of humor. It also takes quite a bit of confidence in decision-making. You can’t backtrack. It teaches you to always move forward.
It's an exact reflection of life.
For an actor, improv is a really good way to learn basic (and sometimes advanced skills), such as commitment, not taking yourself too seriously, creativity, and learning how to battle stagefright. Improv is used in auditions, oftentimes, and many jobs can be found for actors who excel in this area in comedy shows or improvisation troupes. In the 2018-19 school year, I was a high school senior at a public high school in Southern Indiana. I feel so blessed to have gotten some of the experiences that I got while I was a part of their theatre program, and I felt especially lucky to have had the opportunity this last year of high school to work with the first year theatre students as an apprentice teacher for the Introduction to Theatre class. This class gave a little bit of everything to the students; they learned about the basics of acting and production, and they had the opportunity, not only to perform, but also to play theatre games and see shows done at our high school or other local companies. Everyone’s favorite day was improv day, which we did once every few weeks, because it meant lots of laughs in class and no assignments due. It took some time for them to understand the importance of the exercises, but I saw it play into their work. The students that particularly committed themselves to the “games” we played went on to develop critical thinking skills that allowed them to keep going while performing onstage. For many students, this class was their first time acting, so it is to be expected that the scenes aren’t going to be perfectly memorized, and while I encouraged them to work hard in this aspect, I was understanding. See, as long as they kept going with the scene and stayed in the circumstances of the play, they were learning everything they needed to. Improvisation helped them push through line flubs or moments of uncertainty while performing onstage.
But the skills learned in improvisation apply to more than acting. Like I said earlier, the continuing movement of improv is a reflection of life, so obviously, the skills used in these exercises are transferable to everyday life. In studying improv, one learns how to adapt to a situation to keep moving forward. And the number one rule – in order to keep this momentum – is never say “no.”
Of course, in life, there are times when we are meant to say “no.” We should say no to dangerous or poor decisions. We should say no when something makes us feel unsafe or uncomfortable. We should say no when we have other important things to do, and we should always prioritize our mental and physical health over excessive work which leads to burnout. However, learning that you cannot reverse a decision that has already been made… that is the important skill here. In fact, to encourage this theory of moving forward, an actor must adopt the phrase “yes, and…” into their work. When performing improv, your scene partner is going to feed you information. Maybe they will assign you a name, a background, or a location. If they call you “Jennifer,” you can’t say “No, that’s not my name.” That would stop the scene. There is nowhere else to go from there. Instead, the actor is responsible for continuing the conversation and action of the play.
Learning to say “yes, and…” is an important skill. Because of this, people who are involved in the arts grow the ability to run with the information that is given to them or the decisions that have been made, whether that is within their work as an artist or aside from it.
I would be lying if I said I had adopted a perfect “go with the flow attitude.” I am a bit of a perfectionist. I like to have a set schedule, and I often get stressed whenever I am not happy with the details of a piece I work on or even the layout of my room. However, I do work well under pressure: whether that is with high stakes or in a short period of time. I’m a good auditionee. I like being in the audition room. I can write a well-formatted essay with credible sources in a short period of time when I need to do so. I have developed the skills, through theatre, to problem solve in any situation. What my involvement in theatre has taught me (and specifically, my improv experience) is how to just keep moving and find the best way to do so. It has taught me to thrive in interview rooms, my retail job, in expressing my opinions, or working with people everyday of my life – whether that is with friends and family or in my job as a local Miss America titleholder. In the world today, communities, countries, and individuals alike are plagued with real-world issues. I believe that the first step to combating these problems is identifying what’s wrong and then using creative ways to move forward. The truth is: all problems can be fixed with a “yes, and…” attitude. Investing in the arts is the first step to understanding one another; theatrical improvisation is just one example of the infinite techniques available for people to study within artistic expression.
How has theatre helped you adopt a “yes, and…” attitude, and what problem are we going to work on fixing today?