Improv in Austin

Since I moved back to Austin, I’ve been taking impov classes. I started in Level 1 and am now in Level 2. For those of you who don’t know, improv is a type of comedy in which hilarity ensues because its participants are essentially making up shit on the spot, and that inevitably leads to some silly shenanigans.

When you’re taking an improv class, it also leads to some real connections with near strangers. All classes at Coldtowne are two hours, once a week. And I like to describe it as “adult recess.”

For two hours, you get to forget you’re a grownup. You play games and do voices and speak gibberish and all of this is not only allowed but encouraged, and it’s amazing. But, like with all childish games, there are lessons to be learned buried deep within all the fun.

For example, one game is called “Samurai.” In it, you are all samurais. Every last one of you. And your goal is to kill other samurais.

But that’s not your true goal. In improv, your ultimate goal is always to support your partner, to support the storyline that’s being built. And so in the samurai game, everyone gets a sword, and everyone comes out swinging.

And the art happens when, in an encounter, someone makes a decision about their time to die. You have to look at the fake wound that was inflicted, decide whether or not it was fatal, and if it was, despite every fiber of your being telling you you want to “win,” you have to die. The minor payoff is that, in this game, if you’re dying, you get to do it with as much drama as you’d like.

UGHH AHH OOHH NNOOOOO AHHHH!! Any manner of anguish you’d like until you’re stone cold on the floor.

And the major payoff is that at the end of the game you’ve created a narrative that was above your ego.

There is only one samurai standing. And that’s the result of the rest of the class bowing to the fake reality that was in place. And that’s only one game.

I started taking improv classes back when I first moved to Austin because I enjoyed playing a similar game, but one we’re all more familiar with. At an event called Creative Mornings with at least a hundred people, Andy Crouch, someone important at Hideout Theater, led us in a group game of rock-paper-scissors.

Our job was to play one another, and then, as people lost, our job became to cheer the hell out of the winner of each game. So little cheer groups grew out of each loss, and when it ultimately came down to two people playing, two mobs of fifty or so were surrounding them, cheering them on. And when one person won all of us cheered the hell out of that person.

I forget what the point of that game was. Maybe it was supporting one another in our wins and our losses and supporting the game. Whatever it was, I remember that it made me want to take an improv class at Hideout. And I did, and enjoyed every minute of it. Then life happened and I got busy and never went back for level two.

But now, three years later, I’m at Coldtowne trying this thing one more time, first level one again, now level two. And I’m having the best friggin’ time.

That said, level two is slightly more intense than level one. For instance, early into the class I drew a slip of paper that said I was wildly attracted to my scene partner, and so I had to act the part of being wildly attracted to my scene partner, who I had only met that day because I’d missed the first couple of classes.

And I got all in my head about it.

I thought, if I act too well, this guy will think I’m into him. If I don’t act well enough, he’ll think I think he’s repulsive.

And the first rule of improv is (improv has no rules so don’t listen to this but if it did have rules the first would be) don’t get in your head. Just say. Just be. Just accept and move forward with the reality that is being actively constructed. Listen closely and act accordingly, as you would as a human in that situation, and that will become funny just because life is really fucking funny, if we think about it. (But don’t think.)

While I played out the scene, I was reserved and tried to use my words to convey my feelings. We set up a scene where we were on a trip to Vegas and he was going for a work conference and I was going because I’d heard he had a conference there, so had bought a ticket in the hopes of joining him. And in it I said, explicitly, “I’m wildly attracted to you.”

Our level two teacher was having none of that. He paused the scene. “Leigh, I get what your thing is because you said it but not because you did it. Tyler [name changed], what’s your thing?”

“I want to impress her.”

“I need to see more of that from both of you. Not just words. Show us.”

And so I tried to show. As Tyler tried to tell me about how important this conference was in Vegas, and my teacher said “Take it to a 10!” I did the only thing I could think of to do to take it to a 10. I put my legs over Tyler’s lap as I asked him about how important that conference was.

“Don’t just invade his personal space,” my teacher said. “Show us!”

Then we were instructed to not use words, but gibberish.

Somehow, through facial expressions and hand gesticulation and gibberish alone (no legs on lap), Tyler and I were able to demonstrate that I was wildly attracted to him, and he was trying to impress me. And we were done with the scene.

That was difficult, all of it. The forced feigned intimacy with a stranger. The audience of additional (at that time) strangers. The continued feedback that it wasn’t quite right. The internal perfectionist monologue I deal with every day telling me to fucking figure it out and just do it the way it needed to be done. That was hard.

It pushed me more than I’d bargained for from a class I was taking for shits and giggles. But ultimately, it was really good for me—good to be pushed to do better at something new. Good to remind myself that I could just relax and try to be and not worry about what my scene work said about me because it was really what it said about a character who only existed about five minutes, if that.

My classmates were super supportive of the whole damn scene, as improv classmates only can be. And I’ve been a part of many other scenes with them that have been more fun than intense, more laughs than gags.

The end result is, I’m more than wildly attracted to improv—I’m damn straight in love with it. I plan to continue for a long-ass time. And I encourage anyone who’s thinking about trying it to plunge in head first, because the water’s deep and there are so many new friends waiting to cheer you on.

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