What is improv? Wait, Whose Line? That TV show from the 90s? Yes, but the improv you’ll find in big cities is different. It’s called long form, and it’s more akin to jazz than party games. Simply put, small groups make up short plays, typically around 25 minutes long. I’ve been doing improvisational comedy for a little over six years. It was a big reason I moved to New York City. I rehearse, take classes, intern, or perform improv four days a week, and while this exhausting schedule can make finding time for romance a bit challenging, when I do date I date better.
I truly believe that anyone could benefit from studying improv. However, you can adopt some of the philosophies without
joining the cult taking a class.
Improv Your Relationship
Be an active listener. I know, you think you are, but you’re probably not. We aren’t trained to be. What we call “listening” is often just waiting for a pause in the conversation so we can give our opinion about something. In improv, we train in active, whole-body listening. My partner makes a move simply by standing a certain way or raising her eyebrows at a sound she hears. Practice silence, and strive for conversations that are equal parts sharing and accepting.
By being an active listener we don’t just make ourselves seem more interested, we become more interested. Even the worst, most self-centered, idiotic person can be a fascinating character study if you’re paying attention. And if you’re the type of person who tends to pontificate- look, nobody wants to hear you launch into your 20-minute set of prepared material on a date, whether it’s jokes about catering (God save me from a stand up comedian dates) or facts about the expanding Sahara Desert (God save me from my college poly sci major dates.) Be responsive to your date. If the conversation veers into a new direction, let go of that excellent Top 20 Best Animal Deaths list you’ve been biting your tongue to share.
Follow the fun. Following the fun means paying attention to weird moments. It also means making active rather than passive choices – fight the monster rather than talking about fighting the monster. We call visually uninteresting, static improvisation “talking head scenes.” Similarly, isolated talking is probably not going to earn you friends or lovers.
Who are the most popular people you know? I guarantee you, they’re also the people who plan things. Follow the fun and initiate. If your date (or friend you’d like to date) mentions they used to love laser tag as a kid, that’s a really good sign that some laser tag would be an excellent weekend activity. Don’t be put off by failure; people can be flaky. If nobody comes to your clothing exchange party, plan another one, or something different. Keep planning.
Accept the gifts your partner gives you. In improv, a gift is information about a scene or character that your partner gives you. At the top of a scene, your partner will usually let you know who she or he is to you. Maybe she walks out and says “howdy, pardner” with a drawl or refers to you as Dad. That’s a gift, and you’re a jerk if you insist that she’s a Russian snake charmer instead.
At the beginning of a relationship you’re going to have an important talk where your partner will honestly tell you what he or she wants out of the relationship. This is a gift, though it may feel like a smack in the mouth. If he tells you he doesn’t want anything serious you have to believe him, no matter how much he goes on to act like a boyfriend (or vice-versa). The biggest heartbreaks in my life (and I bet in yours) have been when I have not taken my partner at his word when he told me that he wanted the opposite of what I wanted. Obviously, if Yuko tells you she wants a serious relationship before embarking on a 3-week bender returning literally covered in hickeys you should take her at her behavior rather than her word, but it’s a fool’s game to go forward with someone whose stated goals don’t align with yours. (Perhaps hickey benders are also your goals.)
Play at the top of your intelligence. A scene in which you play a brilliant doctor can turn out a million different ways, but a scene where you play a stupid doctor is going to look the same every time. It’s boring, and the joke’s in your choice to be dumb. Playing at the top of your intelligence is the choice to be the best, most honest, most informed version of yourself in every scene.
A relationship in which you date someone who can’t get enough of the fact that you’re an anti-circumcision feminist (or a Shakespearean scholar, or a beer-brewing history fanatic) can turn out a million different ways, but a relationship in which you diminish yourself and constantly bite your tongue and suck in your belly (metaphorically and literally) is boring, and the joke’s in your choice to be with someone who doesn’t love all of you. Be the best you, in every scene and in life.
If only it were that easy, right? Becoming a good improviser is a years-long process, as is learning how to have a good relationship. I was an extremely late bloomer. I haven’t been dating that much longer than I’ve been improvising. Perhaps the day I can consider myself an excellent improviser is the day I’ll have an excellent relationship. I know those two won’t be able to exist in isolation.
And if this improv thing sounds at all interesting, why not take a free drop-in class? Pop in the theater to say hi – I’ll be up in the tech booth, with stars in my eyes and dark circles under them.