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Lessons from Improv: Create Inertia

In this first installment in our four-part series on the lessons to be learned from improv comedy, we learn about the power of fearless momentum.

The moment you step onto the stage, you can’t help but notice the prescient words painted on the wall behind the audience,  “Follow the fear.”  The quote belongs to the late Del Close, one of the fathers of modern improvisational theater. Close is known for having taught the likes of Bill Murray and John Belushi, and his spirit lives on at the People’s Improv Theater in Manhattan.

A dozen others and I have gathered here for an ‘Intro to Improv’ class on a misty Sunday evening. We’re under the tacit agreement that we’re all trying something new and will likely make fools of ourselves in the process. But it’s okay, because what happens at Improv stays at Improv (well, mostly). We’re here for the first of four weekly sessions, and the fact that our audience comprises of 50 empty folding chairs makes the fear only slightly less poignant.“Our goal here is to reduce the distance between your brain and your mouth,” declared our instructor Kimmy Gatewood. Kimmy started things off with an icebreaker: each of us had to invent a signature body gesture to go along with our names. We stood around in a circle, and when someone pointed at you, you’d say your name, perform your move and follow by pointing at someone else and performing theirs. The goal was to keep going back and forth as quickly as possible.

Our icebreaker was the first of many improv games that seemed, on the surface, more apropos for summer camp. However, the games were all designed to introduce us to the core philosophy of improvisational theater: “Yes, and…”

In improv, “yes, and…” is about accepting what’s given to you and then moving the scene along. By acknowledging one piece of information and adding another, the actors work together to whittle down an infinite mass of possibility to a tight, serendipitously-orchestrated performance. It’s a process familiar to any creative problem-solver: you start of with a few pieces of key information and spend the rest of the time cracking the code – working toward a solution and defining the various details along the way.

As we dawdled our way through and struggled to remember names, Kimmy reminded us that we had no reason to hesitate because we already knew the first action: to accept and perform our own gesture. Once we got the ball rolling, the inertia from that initial step (the “yes”) would carry us to the next one (the “and…”).

Tip: Move ideas along by performing the immediate action even when the rest of the project isn’t completely defined. Often the simplest, quickest gesture can create the momentum to carry you and your team through to a solution.

Kimmy’s advice worked. Our reaction times dropped instantly and we began trusting our instincts. It was the “Aha!” moment: “yes, and…” is really about turning ideas into action. By the end of the evening, we had several other improv games under our belts and next week, we would begin doing some basic scene-work. “Don’t worry,” Kimmy said. “It’s nothing to be afraid of.”

More Posts by Jack Cheng

Comments (1)
  • j4london

    Inertia is the resistance of an object to a change in its state of motion. I don’t think we want to create that, we want to create momentum 🙂

  • Simon Freiherr Heereman

    Exactly my thought on this otherwise truly helpful article.

  • Simon

    Exactly my thought on this otherwise truly helpful article.

  • Dgonsalves0606

    Is this a class?

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