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I performed in my first improv show last Saturday, which was so much fun that my earlobes hurt. Yes, it’s improvised meaning everything is made up on the spot. I never stop being amazed by the amount of elegance and synchronicity in improv, given that much of the time you have no idea what the hell you’re going to say until you open your mouth. So many things can go wrong, that I often wondered in awe, after a class session, how I had managed to survive another class in one piece. Well, here are how. And the usefulness of these principles go way beyond performing art.

Surrender the temptation to control.

As in life, improv is a dance between you and your fellow performers. You never know how your partner(s) will respond to what you say, no matter how clever your line is. So forget about trying to control the scene. It’s exhausting, useless, and makes you boring to watch. If you have an idea to get a scene started, do it. It’s good enough. Trust that the rest will take care of itself as long as you pay attention.

Practice relaxed focus.

In doing improv, you need to stay present to what’s going on around you, what your partner says, his or her nonverbal cues, how the scene is doing, what’re the promising directions, etc, etc, etc. In other words, a million things to pay attention to. Yet if you try to focus with great effort, it would only backfire. As a zen master once said, you can’t hold water in a tight fist.

An effortless concentration is where every kind of creativity emerges.

Know that you are always safe.

We say an outrageous share of outrageous things in improv performances. And in case you haven’t noticed, disgusting, ugly, and awkward are much funnier than graceful, presentable, and reserved. At first glance, you may think that improv requires you to have “thick skin”. But rather, it asks you to have no skin at all. Thick skin still implies protection against harm, while allowing yourself to be skinless and lay bare open means you are without fear. Because the bottom line of life is, nothing can really harm you.

Much of what we fear is a creation of the mind.

Let yourself play.

Ever wonder why stupid cat videos get so many hits on youtube? Because animals (and kids) know how to play, which is mesmerizing to watch. Playing implies there’s little at stake. You do it not to win a prize or look good, but simply for the fun of it. And your creativity/problem-solving skills would be ten fold higher.

Failure doesn’t exist outside your judgment.

What makes performing on stage without a script seems so scary is the fear to fail. But how can you fail an improv? Yes, you may fall on your face– that would be brilliant and the audience would love it! Yes, you may stutter– that would be very funny as long as you fully commit to having a speech problem.

The least forgiving person towards you in the entire room is yourself.

The audience in fact loves pretty much everything you say and is so ready to laugh before you ever want them to. Your partners are hanging on your every word so that they can know what to do next. In other words, you can’t fail unless you tell yourself you otherwise.


At the end of the day, improv is a training in freedom. And so is life itself.


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