As you have already read, I started doing impro recently. I enjoy it enormously. This is my reflection on what I enjoy and why.
Just a couple words about the concept just in case. Basically a group of people gather together and play so-called improvisational games. There are many kinds of such games, but the main idea is to be very spontaneous and just channel your ideas outside. Usually there is a suggestion from the group for the theme, so that the players are forced to be spontaneous and couldn’t prepare anything in advance.
In the contrast to games in general, here it is rarely about winning or losing. You mostly fight yourself (being shy, indecisive, blocking your ideas). The mechanics often has no way to win or lose. Very often the game forces people to cooperate.
The most common class of games is based around “scenes”. Here two or more players get on the “stage” (this can be just part of the room), get some suggestion from the audience (e.g. their location and relationship) and then just do the scene without any script. There are multiple variations, which usually add some limitation to the scene mechanics or just spice things up. E.g. I like “new choice” game a lot. There two players do the scene and a moderator can say “next choice”. The player who did something before “next choice” was said has to redo their action or phrase again, but differently. This youtube video gives a nice example, but keep in mind that folks there are extremely good at this and had a lot of practice.
I speculate that impro won’t work if group tries to judge participants or use what they say and do against them later. This must be a safe space for experimentation without any long standing consequences for the participants.
You might be wondering why, but it is simple. Once one stops blocking their ideas, they start getting a lot of them, but majority (especially at first) can be perceived as weird (especially from a mainstream point of view). This is definitely not person’s fault. I feel that brain just works that way. In our normal everyday life we learned very deeply to cut such ideas quickly and never express them. Impro is about trying to reverse this process. You just get some idea and go with it, because usually you have no time to evaluate it anyway.
This non-judgment part feels very bizarre at the beginning. The first couple times you come, you still block your ideas just in case. You don’t want to look weird and scare people off. But at the same time if the group happens to have experienced people (you should aim for such groups), you will observe that they do pretty crazy stuff and people react perfectly fine to this. The most common examples are insults, swearing and sexually related topics. After some time observing others, you start trying a bit crazier ideas yourself and notice that no one objects. Eventually, you will stop blocking yourself.
Regarding long lasting consequences - the impro group can be non-judging, but the mainstream society (or your non-impro friends) may be not like that. Thus, I personally prefer to keep stuff which happens at impro sessions just there. E.g. majority of people outside of impro would not understand what happens there at all. But they don’t have to. As long as the group understands you and everything is kept inside the group, you are fine!
After starting impro I noticed that this thought post-processing mechanism (the one blocking ideas) sits very deeply in my mind. Consider a game “free association”. Basically each player says a word, the next player has to say the first thing that comes to their mind. This is extremely hard at first. You get some word very quickly, but then all this machinery jumps in and in no time you get thoughts like “this word makes no sense, it is not related to the previous word, should I say it? Will it be embarrassing?”. I personally found this very surprising. Fortunately, this gets better with practice. But still it is extremely peculiar to observe our brain “low level” machinery so vividly. In some sense this is similar to mediation. In mediation, you try to keep your thoughts under control. Here you try to avoid wandering away as well. In some sense impro helps to go on meta level and observe how you think.
This safe space is actually extremely valuable, because you can try out new stuff there without worrying of being judged. Normally if you can’t or never tried singing, you feel scared to try, especially in front of other people. They may get upset and tell you that they don’t like your singing. One is scared to embarrass themselves.
I read somewhere that this fear to embarrass yourself is an evolutionary advantage. If you imagine prehistoric people, each of them separately was quite weak against all various dangers in nature. But when they gathered into groups it worked out much better (basically, they used their ability to communicate to their advantage). However, when the group does not like you, they will kick you out. Then you are on your own, which is not a pleasant experience, especially in prehistoric times. Thus, people started fearing being rejected by a group, which could happen as a result of misbehaving or embarrassing yourself.
I am not saying that desire to keep the group happy is bad per-se. E.g. in work context, being scared to embarrass yourself sounds fair. However, the modern society propagates this to other branches of life. As a result, one is scared to try new stuff, to take risks and to fail.
Getting back to our singing example, one could easily try singing at an impro workshop. Since the group is non-judgmental (e.g. due to the nature of impro itself), they won’t judge singing either. Obviously, this is not a hard rule, but I would be extremely surprised if someone said you something negative (that would not be very kind of them). Once you try, you can see how you feel and whether you like it. Perhaps by trying multiple times you can even improve your skill a bit. Or, on the other hand, you can understand that you actually don’t enjoy singing that much and just drop it completely. Either outcome sounds like a good progress to me.
I speculate that this could work especially well for learning languages. Very often people who learn new languages, feel self conscious. They don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of others by making mistakes, taking too long to speak or talking weirdly. Obviously, non-native language at impro is a handicap. However, at the same time, since the group is non-judgmental, at impro one can get through their own language embarrassment barrier and just get used to using the language and observe that others do understand them.
This definitely applies to various artsy stuff like dancing, singing, playing music instruments, writing.
Understand your boundaries and possibly getting through them
Modern society has plenty of unwritten rules, especially about behavior, communication or relationships. Everyone is highly incentivized (aka forced) to be “normal”. Yes, there are ways to differentiate yourself, but they are all highly preselected, like templates from which you can choose. You can have some other kind of clothing or even a tattoo, but there are plenty of other people who will do this as well. Overall, you are encouraged to be predictable and easy to understand to simplify everyone’s life.
What I find extremely funny is that when growing up one just gives up their unpredictability and curiosity. When you were a kid, you didn’t know “rules of the game”, i.e. norms of the society. That’s why crying loudly on a plane didn’t bother you as well as wearing dirty clothing. In some sense, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with either, just the society happens to be against. With time you get directed more and more and eventually just accept these new norms and become an adult.
During impro you hit these boundaries quickly. Normally you don’t observe them explicitly in your life. They are just there like invisible walls, but you probably never went that far, so from your perspective these limitations didn’t exist. Impro encourages you to go all the way and you very quickly discover that, yes, there are plenty of blocks and boundaries.
Discovering them is already extremely valuable. But with impro and safe space you can go even further - to the other side. I am not saying that you should drop all the norms in the society completely. No. But understanding that they are there is useful and getting through them at least at impro sessions is a nice exercise as well. Then it can be your own explicit choice to follow them.
If growing up adds blocks and limitations to your life and impro helps you to become aware of them and to remove some, then impro is equivalent to trying to become a child again. In other words, ungrowing up. If you think about it, you did actually play such games as a child a lot. You would gather with other children, come up with some shared fantasy world or some life situation (doctor or fireman) and then explore that world together with others according to its mechanics. If someone suggested you to consider a stone to be your spaceship, you would easily accept that. If someone says that you are attacked by aliens and you need to run, you would run and shout. This is precisely how impro works. You do a scene with someone in a shared reality, either of you can suggest something and other can either accept it or refuse.
Not being scared of embarrassing yourself (i.e. taking risks) looks like confidence for an external observer. From this perspective, impro helps you to gain confidence. Another peculiar fact is that you can get used to people being non-judgmental. Then assume the same in other situations, e.g. when you make a presentation for a large crowd. Obviously, people there are much more likely to be judgmental, but in majority of cases people just don’t care at all. I know, this is hard to believe, because from your perspective you are the main hero of everything in your life and everyone seems to care about you, but from their perspective they are the heroes. Thus, assuming that people are non-judgmental can help you in situations outside of impro and improve your confidence.
On the other hand, not judging others yourself is also extremely cool. When someone does something unusual, you are tempted to stop them quickly, e.g. if it is inappropriate or you don’t understand it. But during impro you learn to notice this and instead just let it be. In the end, it is other person’s choice and their action. Thus, this skill can help you to support people in creative situations, especially when they take risks and can embarrass themselves.
Obviously, such an unusual activity gathers peculiar people as well. Very often they come from various backgrounds, but somehow find a common language and collaborate. Learning cool people is definitely another benefit of impro sessions, which I enjoy. As well as socializing.
Majority of games culminate with acting, so you get to practice acting a lot and in various situations. This is definitely nice. You get to experience situations, which you would not encounter normally. This helps to understand other perspectives better. You obviously improve your acting skills too.
Play and fun
Finally, impro is all about play and having fun! I believe that all people are very playful and enjoy free-form playing, but are unfortunately limited by the society and opinions of others. Impro gives you a chance to play. In some sense it allows you to be yourself. Once you are not limited by society it is easier to express your own views, emotions and just represent your inner self. As a result, this is often a very fun process. Obviously at first there is some introduction period where you get used to the concept, stop being scared and slowly experiment while crossing your own boundaries. Eventually, you get there and this kind of play just brings a lot of joy. It is also extremely funny. I do laugh a lot, because some scenes are surprisingly hilarious.
Happy ungrowing up!