The upsides of improvising

Acting on-the-hoof almost invariably leads to the outrageous and absurd, as politicians have ably demonstrated, but improvising for on an amateur basis is enjoyable and rewarding.

Google, PepsiCo and McKinsey have accepted improv theatre classes can help pep-up employees’ communication skills and teamwork. And it seems likely to help our mental health and substance use.

Improv groups are springing up all over the place, making it easy for anyone who wants to give it a try. Go online and you will find sites offering exercises, games and directories of local groups.

The secret lies in being ready to take a calculated risk. If a teammate dries up during a scene we have to be ready to jump in and take over without knowing what it is we are going to do when the action restarts.

Accepting this is hard. I, for one, am far more used to holding back in the face of uncertainty. Settling for the first thought that comes to mind is very uncomfortable …or possibly I should say “anathema”?

But it also makes sense. If we were to abandon our teammates to the merciless spotlight, we too may soon find ourselves alone, helpless, blinking, mind blank, dry-mouthed, will to live leaking away.

Funny warm-up games are key to coming good with this, breaking down barriers to making a selfless save, while also helping with listening, timing, attention, spacial awareness and short-term memory.

So, as a bathtub walks to the wings, I manage a solo, bent second-class train ticket from Birmingham New Street to Liverpool. Though far from completely convincing, it passed inspection.

And working as a group we learn methods to create impromptu scenes, establishing characters, their relationships, a location and goal. The trick is to add and not subtract, the dictum being “Yes, and…”.

We often shy away from taking harmless risks in real life. So, doing it for fun is helpful, not least because more often than not it works out. And the chances of success increases with practice.

It also helps to learn it is not really a disaster when something does not work smoothly. And it can even be better. Yes, and… there is always a way back, typically thanks to timely assistance from our teammates. ■