How Improv Helps Me Write: An Entirely Improvised Blog Post

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I’ve only just begun claiming “improv-er” as a label. “Writer” had been on the list for a long while.

My bachelor’s degree is in English and Theater, though I am no great actress. My best part ever was in a weird postmodern piece during which the first line of the play was mine: “OH MY GOD, THE TURKEY!” I never aspired to DO anything with that dramatical part of my pedigree, as many of my friends did. But about a year ago, I felt an itch to perform. Not plays or musicals – I was afraid they’d take up too much time (and though I can sing, I mostly chose not to in front of People); time I could use to write or query or edit or something writerelated. I emailed a local improv group and asked if they were open to new members.

They were. That was a year ago.

The connection between writing and improv is not really so mysterious although it has been revealed to me only recently. When you sit down to outline or write or revise, you may have a structure in your mind, you might have a few characters at the ready, but you are, essentially, improvising. And when we step onto the stage once or twice a month, we have a few characters and we know we’ll be doing what’s called a Harold or a Henriette (those are long-form improv structures) but we don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens.

My friend and fellow improvisor and writer, Patrick Wensink, is teaching an online class about this. I have not had the pleasure of Professor Your Honor Wensink’s class, but I am sure that it’s awesome. He is, after all, a seasoned improv-er and published author so he must be doing something right.

There are many principles of improv that work on stage or on the page. These are the ones I find myself thinking about most.

1. Yes, and… In improv, you never negate what someone has said to you. If you get out there on stage and your scene partner says, “I just love having my hair dyed orange!” you should not say, “But your hair is brown…” You’ve killed the scene. “Yes, and…”-ing is a useful skill onstage, off stage, on the page, off the page. It opens up so many possibilities and adventures. On the page, you can use this as a jumping off point for conflict which is much more savvy than relying on “NO!” to create conflict for you. “No, but…” is flimsy conflict and doesn’t reveal much about the characters or relationships.

2. Support the reality of the scene If you’ve already made it clear that you are in a classroom in Queens, you can’t just start acting or writing like you’re in a spaceship on Mars. You create the environment then you live in the reality of that environment, stage or page. If something unforseen or unplanned happens, as it is wont to do, you go with it. As my former improv coach used to say, “That just happened.” That means you deal with that reality and make it work. See where it takes you. In writing, you might end up with a scene you didn’t imagine and might be awesomesauce.

3. Trust In improv, the thrill is not having a script safety net and trusting your scene partners to not let you fail – and they won’t. In writing, you have the luxury of outlines, drafts, revisions, edits, critique groups, and so on. Trust the instincts and jump out of the damn plane, already. Your chute will open, I promise.

If you’re in or near Louisville, Kentucky, you can check out my improv group, Project Improv. We have the Facebooks and everything so you can see when we are doing shows. We hope to do more shows with INDYPROV out of Indianapolis, too.

I’d love to tell you where to get my book but I don’t have one yet so you’ll have to wait for that.

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