Even if I didn’t teach improv, I would still wholeheartedly recommend that every human take at least one class in their lifetime.
It’s never too late! My oldest student (so far) has been 82. The class was a gift from his wife to keep him from cracking the same jokes to her every night. He loved the class, his wife loved the benefits, and we loved his life-experience in our ensemble.
I’ve taught countless first-timers. Some were 9-5ers wanting to break their routines. Some had anxiety over the mere thought of being on a stage. Some wanted to enter the comedy or acting worlds. All of them remind me of myself when I first started.
Nearly all of the major decisions I’ve made in my life were made because of my relationship with improv.
When I say “improv” I’m talking about “improvisational theatre”: getting up in front of an audience and performing a scene, a story, an entire play—without a script. So much of what I’ve done, where I’ve gone, whom I’ve met, where I’ve lived, and who I am is because of improvisational theatre.
I am a part of the Highwire Comedy Co. community, in part, because of a decision I made when I was fourteen. My cousin heard about a class downtown and thought we should do it. Like so many other situations we found ourselves in, one of us had an idea and the other was easily talked into joining. I guess we were already improvising—but didn’t recognize it. I was both scared of and excited by the idea of learning any kind of theatre.
In the first class, I learned that I was going to have to say “yes” to everything.
Anytime someone had an idea, I had to say, “yes” to it…even if I didn’t particularly like the idea.
As I became an older student of improv, it dawned on me that I wasn’t just learning about how to create spontaneous theatre, I was learning a deeper philosophy that could be applied to life. I didn’t have a name for it, until I was in an improv workshop, where the teacher made some comparisons between improv and Zen.
Zen is a form of Buddhism that focuses on personal understanding as a way of achieving enlightenment, as opposed to knowledge of any certain doctrine. (Improv teachers make comparisons to Zen all the time—but it’s because there are a lot of similarities). The most basic and important tenets of performing improv are also the most basic and important tenets of practicing Zen.
In improv, the student strives to achieve oneness with the moment. In Zen, through mindfulness and meditation, the student strives to achieve oneness with the universe. To achieve oneness with anything, one must first say, “yes” to whatever it is—to fully accept its reality, whether one likes it or not, without judgment, and embracing all the risks.
Maybe you think that achieving oneness with something as tiny as a moment is completely different than achieving oneness with something as big as the universe. But, if you are connected to the moment, you are connected to everything that is in that moment: your heart, your scene partner, your ensemble, the audience, and so on.
A moment easily fits inside a universe. But a universe can also fit inside of a moment.
I am in no way an expert on Zen philosophy. I do have a lot of books on the subject, though. (And I’ve even read parts of them!) I’m an absolute beginner. But because I live in the similar philosophies of improv, I am drawn to it.
All of my students who’ve started their improv journey inspire me. I’ve witnessed so many wonderfully complicated and delightful souls find their joy, creativity, and playfulness; I’ve seen students learn to trust and love themselves just a little bit more; so I will continue to urge every human being, whether it sounds scary or exciting, to take an improv class.
Amanda Rountree has been performing improvisational theatre professionally since 1992, teaching since 1998, and directing since 2002. She recently moved to the Atlanta area from Chicago, where she was a faculty member with the Second City Training Center, an ensemble member with WNEP Theatre, and a writer/puppeteer with SNORF. Her one-woman shows, The Good, the Bad, and the Monkey and 185 Buddhas Walk into a Bar… both had successful runs in Chicago and tours to other cities.