I vaguely remember my first introduction to improv comedy. It was my second year of high school and my second year of theater. Ever. The year prior, the school had forced upon me a theater class second semester. I had no say in the matter. And, somehow, unbeknownst to everyone but God and universe, I became hooked.
A local improviser went around to a bunch of schools offering a one night workshop. At my school, we had so much fun that a bunch of us started practicing and improvising after school at each other's homes, and we even were invited multiple times to perform on "professional" stages in our city with other high schools. We had so much fun.
I had never expected to like theater. Before this, I had no idea anything like improvisation existed. I knew stand-up comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Cosby, and I knew sketch comedy like Saturday Night Live, Monty Python, or Mad TV. But taking an idea and creating something from nothing…the thought had never crossed my mind.
I loved it. Everything about it. I loved the energy my friends and I had when we played the games. I loved that every time we performed, it was different. I don’t do much theater anymore, even though I honestly love it, because deep down I think I have a hard time with the same old performance every same old night. But I’ve been performing improv for ten years now, and it has enriched my life in marvelous ways. There are so many things I could say in this first blog, but they will have to wait. There is something far more critical and personal I want to share, that I hope will set the tone for the comedy and blogs to come.
Comedy saves lives, my friends. Comedy saves lives.
It’s commonly accepted, even if not fully understood, that art is a reflection of the soul. And not just the soul of the creator, but those who can be vulnerable enough to have an experience with it. And when improvisers get together to jam out, they give of themselves in every scene, with every character, and every joke. They are allowing the audience and their fellow performers into their lives for a singular moment, willing to put it all on the line for a laugh and a smile. To me, this is beautiful art.
Let me give you a quick timeline. I started improv when I was sixteen or seventeen, at a time when I had an identity, but I wasn't sure how deep my character went. My parents got divorced my senior year, and comedy quickly became a foundation for my emotions. Then, after high school, I had nothing to do with improv until I was twenty-three and recently divorced. My soul hurt, and once again God and the universe put it in my path. I started performing with a group, then after a few years managed that group, and now I've been there over eight years.
During those years I've been burnt out twice, plus a needed break three years ago. Every time I was burnt out I kept saying that it was because of others. Both times, after honest reflection, I found the problem in myself. Once I was able to see humility, I returned and was welcomed with open arms, realizing both times how much I needed the laughter.
The needed break happened when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I was one of her primary caretakers, and she lived for seven months. I had some laughter in me, but nowhere near my familiar limit. But, all those years of comedy helped me handle this time with honesty, humility, and yes, laughter and smiles. When she passed on, I rushed back to the stage and my family of friends. I told them how I felt, and how much I needed them, and they once again welcomed me back with hugs and strength and then proceeded to bear me up during performances until I had it in me to stand on my own again.
Every time some powerful force has entered my life, good or ill, God and the universe positioned comedy to be right there with me. I don't believe in coincidences, but I do believe in the power of choice. This is why I view comedy to be so powerful, and one reason that improv comedy makes such an impact in my life.
Every single show is different, but can only succeed because of trust, confidence, bold choices, and teamwork—that's putting it simply, but those four are vital components to every show. Comedy is fashioned from extreme circumstances. It exists because of how one person chooses to relate to life, people, nature, work, ideas, feelings, and themselves, and then how they present these aspects. Bold often equates to funny in comedy.
Improv comedy is spur of the moment, on the spot, no previous meditation taken, and no script used. Yes, the performers train and workshop the games and skills necessary, but each new audience with each new suggestion creates something they have never done before. This art of such raw creation that yields an honest response with laughter, smiles, and hooting and hollering is so powerful.
Powerful enough to change lives.
We used to have a member of our troupe, who at the time was helping us out with our show's technical needs, give us some feedback in our notes after a show that has resonated with me since. Now, not to diminish the nature of the words, but he shared this with us many many years ago, and I confess to only remembering the theme of his words, and not the individual words themselves. He became serious and paused a moment after getting our attention. When he lifted his head to look at us, he asked, "Do you guys realize what you have here? Do you know what you do for people?" We weren't prepared for the dramatic touch, and couldn't find a serious answer to his question. So we stayed silent and listened.
“You guys give people hope. You give them what they can’t get on their own. There is light here that might save someone looking for it in their life. You save lives.” There was no mistaking his sincerity. No need to make a joke or quip to dispel awkward tension or energy. I can’t speak for the rest of us who were there that night, but those words hit me hard. Up to that point, I’d never given much active thought to it. But I do now. Every show I’m in, and every time I teach improv to someone else, this becomes part of my delivery. But not because my friend said it. Because he said it, and I knew exactly what he meant. I could go back through my life, tracing the path with ease, and find all of those moments and the corresponding light of improv that connected to it. I could discern the truth of good comedy in my own life. That is why it has stuck with me. Not everyone understands improv, and I don’t really care if they do. Everybody has their thing. What I care about are those people who I get to interact with, who may be struggling. The difference for me over the years, is I work hard to make sure I’m handling their vulnerability, whether known or not, with care, love, laughter, and smiles. I personally know many, most of them friends, who have survived life because of improv. And I thank all those I don't know for their willingness to be a part of it and allow me a chance to giggle and laugh with them.
This is the radiant light that is improv comedy.