I have been around improv for the last ten years. About eight of those years included me convincing others and myself that I would in no way attempt improvisational comedy. It is kind of like my writing post, Am I a Writer?, as I am daily surrounded by highly skilled and hilarious improvers.
About two years ago I noticed that I would have a lighter summer at work and being one that likes to stay busy, began to consider taking my first improv class. There is only one comedy theater in LA of which I am basically legally or ethically allowed to consider, Mi’s Westside Comedy Theater. Technically through marriage, I am part owner.
I have come to really enjoy being at the theater. Good people. Good comedy and for the last year, good beers. I find myself there at least every other week. I strangely ended up in one of the theater videos below. You can also spot YouTubers Zach Sherwin (formally known as Mr. Napkins) Lloyd (epiclloyd) and Mike & Kayla Tompkins.
However, I believe if I had done some more research on other theaters in the area, I would have still taken classes as Westside. Unlike other theaters I have been to, you can feel the genuine support and roots of community that it fosters. It also has a delightful mix of people from all walks of life. Some are working actors and many others (like me) are looking for a creative outlet or simply to have fun.
Every theater has a backstory and I am probably biased, but the story of Mission Improvable is a good one. As reported on the theater website
In 1998 six guys from the improv group Mission IMPROVable at UMASS Amherst moved to Chicago, the Mecca of improv, to continue to learn and perform the art of improvisation.
In 2002 the first handful of M.I. guys came out to Los Angeles to develop a sketch pilot for MTV and were eventually (and rightfully so) beat out by Human Giant. However, they continued to be permanent fixtures on many of LA’s most popular comedy stages.
In 2000 they began touring their short form comedy show and in 2001 they performed at NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) and hit it big! They began performing shows at colleges all across the country and eventually had to hire more guys to travel around in their van, Vanarky. Then they hired a second generation of touring improvisers, then a third, a fourth and on and on and on….
Then, on April 1st, 2009 (yes, April Fools Day) Mission IMPROVable bought Mi’s Westside Comedy Theater. We embraced the standup community, started a training center and on September 2011 we opened our bar. Now serving over 30 beers!
Currently, Mission IMPROVable has over 50 members and performs over 350 shows a year from Hawaii to Singapore. M.I. Productions is also involved in projects for film, TV and created an alcohol awareness show “A Shot of Reality” for colleges and military bases across the country. We are also the official home of Youtube’s “Epic Rap Battles of History,” which was born out of the show Check One, Two at the theater.
The owners of the theater still perform regularly every Thursday night at 10PM for free in The Grind; and every Friday and Saturday at 10PM you can see the home company of the show that started it all, Mission IMPROVable.
If any of the other owners are reading this, where is the important text about the amazing wives and girlfriends!?! A post will come later, but I have declared these amazing women, married and seriously dating the owners/members of Mi as ‘The Mi Wives Club.’ Anyone else out there married to an improvisor would know why we need a club.
Back on topic, because the owners have performed for so long together when they perform, teach or write curriculum it is coming from a very solid base. Their philosophy is:
Improvisation is a series of choices and discoveries made by an ensemble of committed, emotional players all supporting one another. We seek to create great improv by realizing the potential of the group.
This theater offers six levels of classes and I will say level one was the hardest. It was so difficult because I was extremely nervous every class, was broken of what I ‘thought’ was improvisation and began to accept the fact that maybe I could do improv.
As noted in the level one curriculum, there are six weeks of class. Each class builds on the last. Each week there is a class topic that includes a great quote from both improvisors and not on the focus.
As you read these, think to yourself: How could I apply these at work, in relationships, etc?
WEEK 1: TRUST & SUPPORT
“If we treat each other as if we are geniuses, poets, and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on-stage.” – Del Close
WEEK 2: Whole body listening: HYPERLISTENING as well as NON-VERBAL LISTENING
“Listening is not merely hearing. Listening is reacting. Listening is being affected by what you hear. Listening is active.” – Michael Shurtleff
WEEK 3: Listening and RESPONDING EMOTIONALLY
“Lack of emotion is lethal. It will kill every scene.” – Del Close
WEEK 4: DISCOVERY: Let’s see what we can make together!
“The true delight is in the finding out rather than in the knowing.” – Isaac Asimov
WEEK 5: DISCOVERY: A big part of discovery is letting go of the fear of what’s going to happen next.
““Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” — Del Close
WEEK 6: TEAM PREP: Prepare for class show
“A player who makes a team great is more valuable than a great player.” – John Wooden
Every single one of these concepts is applicable outside the world improv. Listening (no, really listening). Support. Letting go of fear.
One other major applicable concept for all avenues of life is the idea of Yes And. The curriculum defines it as
“Yes, and” has become a common shorthand for explaining basic improv philosophy. Accepting the reality that your scene partner establishes (the YES) and adding to it (the AND) is the fundamental building block of improvisation. For example:
- You can’t divorce me! What about our children?
- I hate our children as much as I hate you!
And the scene can progress from there. Contrast that with the following denial:
- You can’t divorce me! What about our children?
- We don’t have any children!
Now the scene has stopped in its tracks. It can’t go any further until we settle the disputed reality.
How does Yes And apply off the comedy stage?
Have you ever been in a meeting where ideas are dismissed? Brainstorms are shot down the instant they are offered? Or how about spending time with someone whom no matter how hard you try, can not get them to be open to suggestions? The ‘scene’ goes nowhere.
Yes And is something you can not impose upon others. As noted above, it is a personal philosophy. The far out version of this is the movie Yes Man, staring Jim Carry where he said yes to anything that came his way. While a captivating movie, he was taken advantage of by friends, got married and did all these things he really didn’t want to do.
Outside of an improv scene, Yes And does not only always mean saying yes. It means agreeing to the suggestion by adding on to what has been offered.
A very famous improviser, Tina Fey released her Rules for Improv in her book Bossypants, where you will see further the Yes And concept applied by Bryce Christiansen from Women 2.0 post.
Rule #1 — Agree
The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES.
When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt.
But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.
The Lesson: Respect What Your Partner has Created
Tina Fey obviously doesn’t think you’ll agree with everything you hear, but the real lesson is in “respecting what your partner has created.” The benefit of “agreement” is an open mind, an environment where ideas can thrive and innovation is welcome.
We all know what it’s like working with the guy who breaks rule #1. You’ve heard him, he’s the guy who says, “No, it won’t work,” “That’s impossible,” “Nope, we can’t do that.” Not so much fun working with them, is it?
Rule #2 — Not Only Say Yes… Say Yes And
The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own.
If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill.
The Lesson: Contribute Something
When Tina Fey says, “Say yes and” it means to contribute. Don’t be that guy in the office who sits in meetings with nothing to add to the conversation.
Take what your team has created and add something to it.
I love me some Tina Fey. Her quote to the right is just about my favorite of all time
I wrote today about improv because the more I fought it, the more I realized how much I needed it. I was intimidated from taking classes from teachers that I before knew as friends. I was strangely worried that I would be competing with my husband. I didn’t want my classmates to treat me different because I was the owners wife.
But worse of all, what if I wasn’t funny?!
Quite fitting, in improv at some point you have to get out of you head and say yes already. So just try it already, a level one intro to improv. You do not need to be a working actor, aspiring to be the next Julia Roberts (but wouldn’t that be nice…).
In the corporate world? Check out Westside Corporate that brings improv to the peoples at work: https://www.westsidecorporate.com
Here are some great resources to explore improv further.