When you think about improv classes the first thing that comes to mind might be nothing at all because the prospect of taking one fills you with such deep and abiding terror that your brain goes completely blank. Or, you might dismiss them out of hand as professional development for your pals who fancy themselves the next Tina and Amy or Abbi and Ilana, but off limits for the rest of us.
“Improv is a tool,” says Philip Markle, New York executive director of The Annoyance Theatre in Williamsburg. “It’s not an end game. It’s not a wrong or a right. Our goal at The Annoyance is to make you the most powerful fearless version of yourself onstage.” That power doesn’t exist for just comedians or actors. It’s for everyone in every business, in every industry, with every type of personality. Whether it’s a way to beat shyness, an alternative to another night at the bar, or even as a form of therapy, these classes evoke more than just laughs.
“The trend I see in improv are those who take the classes to help with public speaking, shyness, depression, break-ups, and also to meet people who have an underlying common thread, to get out of their heads, to escape from reality, and to have an intro to acting and performance,” says Andriana Santiago, co-founder of La Luz, another theatre not far from Annoyance. “I like these trends because improv works for everyone.”
Like any Beyonce-obsessed lady, I like power, so I tried out some improv classes and rather than terrifying (okay, they’re also that at first, but you quickly get over it), they were completely liberating. Now I go to become the best version of myself, to feel like a child and to be free of judgment. It’s completely uncensored (which is amazing) and unlike any other place you can ever be totally free and also feel safe. And it doesn’t hurt that most sessions end with a newfound sense of camaraderie with your fellow students, often celebrated at a nearby bar.
“Once it’s done, it’s done and you can go and get a drink,” says Markle. “If you’re not having fun or blaming others for ruining the fun, then you’re the asshole.”
A good teacher knows that improv can be scary, and designs the class around getting away from your inner doubter and getting into the improv flow. One exercise I loved at Annoyance is set up so that students perform a ton of back-back improvised scenes with a decreasing amount of time per scene. By the time you get down to seven second vignettes, there’s simply no time to worry about performing “a good scene.” Then as you ramp the time back up to longer scenes, the goal is to keep that sense of play and being in-the-moment by focusing on a strong character rather than letting your brain shoot out all those other worries like, “Am I funny? Does the teacher like me? Am I being a good scene partner?” The Annoyance is known for this character-based approach to improv, and they believe that it helps students stay in a free, playful space.
The Annoyance Theatre offers a variety of classes including Improv Teaser and Advanced Improv Programs taught by Markle and several other teachers. Classes run $30 for a single, or around $350 for an eight-class series. The school also has sketch and musical improv classes. La Luz offers a wider range of classes, including capoeira and dance, and their weekly $10 drop-in class on Tuesday nights explores techniques in short- and long-form improv. They also offer eight-week programs and workshops.
One of my favorite improv exercises, which I participated in at a class at La Luz, is called Throwing the Knife. This is how it works: Someone has an imaginary knife. You must always be aware of who has the knife because it may come to you. When it’s thrown, the thrower makes a karate kung fu sound, and when it’s caught,the catcher makes another sound. It’s a game of awareness and possibility–as you get deeper into it students begin pulling the knife out of various places of their body and making increasingly strange sound effects. It’s really silly and hilarious and one of the most fun warm-up games you could ever experience.
You can also channel the power of improv to work on your issues more formally. Mark Beauregard is a psychotherapist who specializes in drama therapy, and his practice NY Creative Therapists offers individual and group playback theatre. The practice draws from various improv schools of thought and acting techniques to address conflict and trauma.
Beauregard will often ask clients to create improvised monologues or will engage in repetition scenes and dialogues centered around conflicts and feelings that clients are experiencing in their relationships, all based in the Meisner technique, which is designed to get the actor out of her own head and more engaged with the other players in the scene. So for example, if a couple is not seeing eye to eye, they each will take on a line that represents one perspective and begin a scene together, say, “I need to be closer” versus “I need more space.” Beauregard will facilitate a role reversal throughout so that they can each experience both sides of the dynamic. They then discuss how it felt and what was gleaned from that. (Here’s a blog post Beauregard wrote about using this technique in family counseling and another he wrote about using creative therapy to escape yourself and ultimately better understand yourself.)
At NY Creative Arts Therapists, individual sessions cost $175. Group sessions are $35 and workshop prices vary depending on length of the workshop or training.
Improv is a mindset that I’m learning to adopt. My inner voice no longer says, “Am I doing this right?” or “Am I having fun?” I’m less doubting and I judge myself less. Will an improv class land you a spot on SNL next season? Probably not. Will it be an exhilarating experience that might just change your life in ways you never expected? Absolutely.