Walking into The Groundling Theatre, the first thing that hits you is that you’re in a modern shrine. More specifically, the shrine of funny. The photos of lots of funny, funny people - your Will Farrells, your Kristin Wiigs, your Jim Rashes (ha) - crowd the lobby walls.
When I walked in this morning, I spent a while just looking at these photos. It put me in the right frame of mind for my Improv A, the most basic, non-professional kind of deal you can do at The Groundlings. I chose The Groundlings because there are some cool writing classes…the only prerequisite is the six-week Improv A class.
I’ve never thought much about improv, even though I’ve always liked performing. I spent time on stage in high school and casually continued on in college, grabbing prestigious roles like “pregnant woman stranded in airport” or “promiscuous rebellious teenage daughter” in small productions. I’m naturally more introverted, but dropping into these weirdo characters, getting to say their words…it was a fun way to be a totally different (usually sluttier) kind of gal.
But improv, with no script, no blocking, no nothing, basically, has never been in my particular wheelhouse. There’s no control! You’re supposed to “just go with the flow,” which is way too last-five-minutes-at-the-yoga-sess for my blood.
So, I wasn’t sure how this improv class business was going to go.
Here’s how this first class goes: We move into a small classroom. There are 15 of us, and we are ranging in age from fresh out of high school to white-haired and possibly retired. We sit down and immediately, our teacher is giving us a pretty in-depth lecture on the human brain. Guess what, y’all? Our brains are so thinky! The whole point of this class is to hang out less on the that thinky side, and more on the “do it, do it!” side.
We then test this out with a bunch of group activities where we’re messing up a lot together because we’re all still thinking way, way too much. This is okay, though, our teacher says. He lets us mess up, then walks us through what we don’t even realize we’re doing. He tells us stories about being in the troupe with Will Farrell, who is (unsurprisingly) really great at improv — how he’s like watching a cat in the middle of the room, and you’re just unable to tear your eyes away, wondering what it’s going to do next.
We learn all the ways that we naturally want to force our controlling natures on these improvisations by planning out what we’ll say, how we’ll pick up a story. But it doesn’t work that way, and more than a few times, we all try, then fail epically because again, that pesky thinking.
Our faces betray when we mess up, when we start thinking about our responses too much, when we’re suddenly self-conscious. Mostly, our natural mode in these situations is self-deprecation, drawing attention to ourselves and our mistakes, laughing it off, making it obvious. But that’s for stand ups, our teacher says. To do improv, you have to stop pulling the attention to yourself. You incorporate the mistake, and you play it like it was completely intentional.
Also, get this - in improv, you shouldn’t really try to be funny!
We keep putting our bodies through these stressful exercises and eventually, we all stop caring how badly we’re doing and what everyone else in the room is thinking. In a sense, we’ve all accepted this ship is fucked, so we might as well just have fun as it goes down. We do a final exercise together where we incorporate all the improv stuff we’ve learned and it’s so much better than the first exercise that we’re all genuinely smiling by the end.
I wasn’t funny at all today. And I didn’t discover that I’m natural-born improviser. But I still left class today feeling great. The things I often feel are hindrances to my own creativity - anxiety, judgment, being too much inside my own head - are exactly what this class is all about overcoming.