Monday 20 June 2016

London Second City Improv Class: My Review

The rather wonderful Angel Comedy Club in London, and the comedy blog, Comedy Blogedy, reached out to the legendary Second City improv troupe/training school and set up two week's worth of classes in May 2016. I attended the first week's "Improv for Beginners (Level A)" and kept a diary of my thoughts after each day.

Here they are:

Day One

The class began with two simple tasks. The first was introducing yourself by telling the class something they didn't know about you, and the second was inventing a silly alliterative action to go along with your name.

I was so petrified that I was unable to even think of something beginning with the letter "J"... I ending up with "jingling", and I still don't really know what I meant.

Jumping, jolly, jovial, jammy, jaded, jokey, jittery... Hmm. It's much easier when there's not the pressure of 20 strangers in the room.

As the games continued, our excellent teacher slowly chipped away at everyone's hesitance and self-consciousness, encouraging us to trust our instincts. The cardinal rule being that there was never a "wrong answer", there was only ever something you brought to the game.

We were admonished for acting like we'd made a mistake and beating ourselves up, or reacting to our scene partner's input as if it was wrong. We were encouraged to allow ourselves to do what we liked, and take any suggestions that came our way as a gift. We were a team, and our job was to enthusiastically embrace whatever came our way, and make our partner look good.

Our teacher successfully managed to create a safe environment. By the end of the class we'd all loosened up and were having fun with each other.

I've already learned a lot about myself and what I need to improve. For example, during the "create a story a word at a time" game, I noticed I was always playing it safe with pronouns  - and even my game partner commented on it. He was absolutely right. When I decided to offer something more interesting, it got a huge laugh from the group.

Likewise, [in another game] when we were mimicking each other's moves, I found it hard to build on what people had just done, and take it to new heights [like we were supposed to]. It nearly always ended up with attempting to do it louder, which was a shame because there were so many ways it could have gone. I could have really had fun with it, and it never would have been wrong.

Let's see what day two holds!

Day Two

Today we actually slipped into some scene work without too much fuss. It wasn't blown up into something big, it was just expected of us... and we did it. Even me.

It was scary but good. I even got a few genuine laughs of my own... a very generous audience.

Halfway through the day I actually felt, for the first time, comfortable. I just relaxed and stopped worrying so much. It's tiring bring worried, and part of me just gave up and let go. It was a good feeling.

[Of course, I was still a tad anxious the next morning going in.]

I learned a bit more about Angel Comedy and I'm seriously impressed with their founder (Barry Fern) and what they've achieved. It seems like a home for comedy without ego, driven by the pure fun of it. It feels so genuine that the energy is infectious.

I backed their Kickstarter (something in the bar will permanently have a plaque named for me) and hope they do well. Maybe I could volunteer my services to improve their website. Dull, but it's something I can offer and do well.

Onto Day Three...

Day Three

Today was the most emotional day so far, which was fitting as we were focusing on doing emotional work in class. Today marked the point we were over halfway through, as well as the first time we socialised after class as a group.

I discovered my class is filled with interesting and ambitious people. (Where were they all when I was single and unemployed and desperately lonely, looking for direction?) Being with them is very inspiring, in the sense that they make their achievements (eg. performing stand-up, and all the struggles that go with that) seem... everyday.

Talking about doing a stand-up gig around these people doesn't feel like a life-breaking, brain-shattering, earth-shaking experience. It feels like a difficult, trying, anxiety-inducing... but normal experience.

In class I learned that people enjoy seeing a thread of behaviour grow to its logical, heightened conclusion. A small taste of behaviour before moving on to something else is unsatisfying for the audience. They want a narrative to follow, and changing tack breaks that narrative.

The key seems to be to make an interesting choice and stick to it until you've drained it.

The saddest part of the day was realising how genuinely upset I'm going to be when the course ends.

Only two days to go...

Day Four

The worst thing about today is knowing that tomorrow is the last day. It's been a hell of a roller-coaster, and I'm going to miss it when it's gone. I've learned so much.

The most important thing [I've learned] is trusting in myself and trusting in the process. Throwing yourself into a situation is OK. In fact it's better than OK, it works. You don't need a plan. You can purely rely on your brain's instincts to give you what you need. The only thing that stops that process is your fear.

And what's more, it's FUN to discover where you end up. You're discovering at the same time as everyone else, and it's enjoyable.

After tonight's show I went to a gig with a classmate where our teacher, Erica Elam, was performing. I felt self conscious for her, worried that she would be put off by our presence, but I needn't have.

Everything we've learned from the course was on full display, and then some. She's was fearless and present, and the comedy flowed naturally.

This course has been a life-changing experience.  From the people I've met, to the things I've learned. I feel personally changed for the better, and I hope beyond hope that I can continue to practice [improv].

Last Day

The last day was extremely emotional. After a physically and mentally exhausting five days, I feel a bit lost. Tomorrow I won't be pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I have no big scary thing to face... and I miss it already.

I can't think of anything that's pushed me quite as hard, or excited me quite as much. We've finished [Second City Improv] Level A, but there's no Level B waiting for us [like there is in the US]. We're on our own now... and that "we" has no leader, only the vaguest collective idea of how to move forward, and we will ultimately, inevitably dwindle.

It's a sad moment.

On the flip side I've learned a lot about what I'm capable of. I've got a solid foundation in the basics of improv, and I've achieved my goal: I'm more in touch with my instincts than ever before. Right now I trust in my ability to take a situation and find something funny it. I know my brain will fill in the gaps and make the connection, all I have to do is listen [and practise!].

The most difficult part of improv is learning to trust in your instincts. It's a personal battle for every new improviser, and I'm sure it's ongoing [even when you've mastered it]. As our teacher put it, it's a struggle against our societal conditioning. Kids are great at improvising, but as we get older we're taught to restrain ourselves, and improv is sort of fighting back against that pressure, getting in touch with our most creative part... without fear.

This week has been a major step toward that [for me].

Everything seems a little brighter today. Building seem bigger, colours seem more vibrant.

Now is a sad moment, but I'm happy that I was brave enough to give it to myself.

The Morning After

After spending the last five days feeling like I was being shot out of a canon (at ever increasing speeds), and last night's resulting free-fall once class was over, this morning was a painful crash-landing back into reality. But I've dusted myself off and what I'm noticing is that I'm different. The most obvious thing is that I'm less self-critical. I feel like I should be able to create more easily now, and with less self-awareness. This was my main goal when I decided to take the course, and I'm more than a little amazed that it's what I feel I'm taking away from the experience.

There's still a long way to go, but I'm definitely on the right path. I just have to keep walking down it, and not get waylaid.

Pushing myself out of my comfort zone for that week was immensely rewarding, and something I highly recommend. For those interested, here's how I felt I'd changed after one week with Second City:
  • I noticed my default reaction to everyday frustrations was altered. Instead of getting irritated and annoyed by little things that didn't go exactly how I expected/wished them to, I found myself reacting as you would in an improv scene: Accepting them as a gift and focusing on my reaction instead. (A much more desirable and productive response!)
  • I found myself less in my head, and more paying attention to what was going on around me - again as you would in an improv scene when you're listening.
As for improv itself, I now can see what the pros are doing more whenever I watch it. They really do make a pretty tricky process look effortless. 

As the saying goes, "Improv is getting up in the air and building the plane as you go". I now fully appreciate what that means. I've learned that taking a leap of faith is part of the process, and that it's not a problem if you don't know what you're going to say or do, because when you're doing it right, you're truly allowing yourself to be completely open and react in the moment (which I can imagine takes years to master).

For me it was a leap of faith, and it felt great when it worked. What I discovered is that, if you're brave enough to step out, your brain will make the connections for you. It's what it does all day anyway -- we're all improvising all of the time. The trick is to allow yourself to trust in that process.

It's jumping off the cliff and figuring it out on the way down, or as Keegan-Michael Key puts it, zooming out...

Thanks to our instructor, Erica Elam, and my classmates. If you're reading this wondering whether you should take a Second City improv course, my advice is YES! Be brave and go for it. You'll thank yourself later.