Improv is fun to watch and fun to do, but it’s also a form of comedy that teaches you valuable skills like listening, critical thinking, and creativity. These skills are certainly important for anyone to have a grasp on, but they’re especially important for millennials and Gen Z to have in their toolkit as they start to enter the workforce. Our two favorite interns, Charlotte Frankel and Liv Ryan, who were allowed to write this introduction, practice improv at Middlebury College and Wesleyan University respectively. Both Frankel and Ryan will graduate next year, and they sat down to discuss what improv means to them, what it’s taught them, and how the tenets of improv can be mapped onto everyday life.
LIV: When did you start doing improv?
CHARLOTTE: I started in college -- I wanted to be a part of that community right off the bat. I began school in February, because Middlebury accepts students then as well, and the one thing I knew I wanted to do was improv. What about you?
LIV: Right before college I got really into watching stand-up, and my freshman year I joined an all-female comedy collective that specialized in sketch and stand-up. My sophomore year, I was a little more confident in terms of my abilities, and I auditioned for a long-form improv group. I ended up getting in, and improv slowly became a really important part of my life. Not only was I spending so much time with these people, but I felt like with improv I had discovered a new language. My teammates and I had to read each other and listen in this way that made me feel like we were on this other plane of understanding. It felt incredibly new and exciting.
CHARLOTTE: For sure. I got to campus, and I was like, improv is what I want to do. There are some people from UCB that came through Middlebury and were in my group that I really admire, and I wanted to be part of that community and legacy. So I auditioned, and I got a callback, and I didn’t get it. And I was upset for a hot second, but I just steeled myself against the rejection and kept moving forward. So over the summer after my freshman semester, I took the 101 class at UCB, and that really helped bolster my confidence. And then I came back in the Fall with this big ball of energy and was like, let’s go. We’re doing this. I’m ready. I’m here. And that was that.
LIV: What you’re saying about failure really resonates with me. I feel like being bad at improv when you first start out is just kind of part of the game. I had impostor syndrome when I first started. I was pretty unseasoned, and felt like every scene I did wasn’t that good or funny, but I so desperately wanted to get better and really committed myself to that. It’s a form that really takes a lot of practice, and being open to the fact that it’s a work in progress is so vital. Coming back to each rehearsal means being open each time to it being a new day and new experience.
What do you think are some lessons you’ve gained from improv being a part of your life?
CHARLOTTE: One big thing has been learning how best to support others, and to not necessarily showboat. That’s always a big learning curve. It’s so easy in improv to just want to walk on stage and do something crazy. But that’s not what’s best for your scene partner or your group, so learning how to add that support not just on stage but also in life has been really valuable to me.
LIV: I feel that in terms of just -- the practice of wanting to “give gifts” to your scene partner is something that is not instinctual. If you’re a person who likes performing, it’s a given that you like the spotlight and I feel like improv teaches you how to not be such a --
CHARLOTTE: Dick. Oops, sorry.
LIV: Attention hog. I also feel, especially when I first started, it was my immediate instinct to just think of something funny or random to say. I wasn’t thinking as much about the trajectory of a scene or what’s truthful to the environment or to what’s going on. I would only think about how I could get a laugh, and that’s just a really bad and disruptive way to contribute. I had to learn to give myself over to the fact that if my scene partner and I trust each other we’ll get there and figure it out.
CHARLOTTE: And it’s so important to foster those communal bonds. I really consider the people in my group to be my dysfunctional Middlebury family, and those deep connections I have to everyone are invaluable when improvising.
Do you think improv has made you think about the world any differently?
LIV: The core principle of listening has stuck with me the most. If you’re not listening in a scene, you’re not doing your job. With improv, what’s in the details is so important. The second you call a character by the wrong name because you weren’t paying close enough attention, you take the audience out of the world you’ve created. In improv you have to be attentive and you have to be ready.
In general I think our generation has a pretty short attention span. That’s something I certainly struggle with. If I’m bored -- even for a few seconds -- my instinct is to check my phone. And I think that amid all the stimuli and information we have at our fingertips, remaining present can be difficult. Improv requires me to listen and be in the moment -- even if I’m on the back line -- and what’s amazing is that that lesson is so directly applicable to my everyday life.
CHARLOTTE: I completely agree. Listening is the most key, and it’s something, weirdly, that you have to teach people, and something I definitely had to learn when I got into the group. I also think improv has changed how I interact with people and how people interact with me. I feel I have a lot more confidence and I trust that I have valuable things to say.
Okay -- if I’m being honest, that’s not always the case, but at least I know how to present my nonsense ideas with a flourish.
LIV: I also think that improv has made me quicker on my feet. Improv requires you recognize “the game” of a scene, and I think always looking out for that has forced me to think fast, and it’s something I’ve been able to apply to my everyday life.
CHARLOTTE: One of the basic rules of improv is to start in the middle of an event or premise, and I feel like that simple rule has really helped calm my nerves when I go into new situations.
LIV: Wow, that’s really cool!
CHARLOTTE: Right? Whenever I’m starting a new job or a new class that philosophy has really helped me acclimate. I’ll say to myself, “Just pretend like you’ve already been here,” and it takes away some of my anxiety. Of course, I always treat people with the proper amount of respect, but this mantra helps me relax enough to speak up without my voice cracking.
LIV: Yeah, definitely. Improv has taught me how to be bold and to be less afraid of making mistakes. When you’re standing on the back line and no one is stepping forward it doesn’t matter if you have a brilliant idea or not, you just need to get out there and do something. That tenet has really helped me to be less fearful and I’ve taken that into other areas of my life.
CHARLOTTE: Improv has really helped me to better practice focusing, because if I don’t, I know I’m going to bomb. And not only will that be embarrassing personally, but more importantly, I’ll be letting down all these other people who are relying on me. In improv you succeed together and you fail together; there’s this really intense sense of accountability that I’ve carried with me offstage.