When I first started my Improv journey, I had no idea that that was true. It never even crossed my mind. Yes, the show that actually made me WANT to try this beautiful artform was ALL relationship, but I didn’t really know what I was seeing – just that I liked it. I actually thought that what I was watching was an anomaly. I’d been to shows before, and they just felt jokey and silly to me. The players were sometimes quick and sometimes funny, but really, I didn’t see much that flipped my switches….until that ONE show. I didn’t know WHY I loved it. I just knew I wanted more of it, and I wanted to learn whatever magic that particular duo had to teach.
I stepped into my first Level 1 class almost 3 years ago, and I haven’t turned back. I’ve taken lots of classes and traveled to play and to attend workshops. I’ve watched A LOT of Improv. I’ve learned many things, and I think I’ve gotten better at Improv generally. The core of everything though, that piece that keeps me coming back and, in my not so humble opinion, makes everything else work, is Relationship.
We teach how to build and SHOW relationship on stage. We talk about hyper-listening, proximity, touch, and silence as specific tenets of relationship, and of course we teach and practice the art of YES-AND everywhere and all the time. We encourage emotional expression, not just quick and funny jokes. Basically, we have a pretty package of tools that, when used together, bring out interesting, compelling, funny, and sometimes absurd relationships that the audience cares about.
Lovely. Improv relationships can be DELIGHTFUL.
And here’s the thing:
The pretty package of tools we hand out in Improv classes can be used to improve any and all relationships out there in the real world.
Improv can make your relationship with your honey, honeys, friends, frienemies, coworkers, neighbors, family, and even your favorite barista better.
- “Yes…and” is the first rule of Improv. Saying “yes…and” keeps the scene and the relationship in motion. It opens doors for new adventures, and it demonstrates trust and trustworthiness between stage partners. The same is true of “yes…and” in our real-world relationships. We humans are pretty defensive by nature, and “no…but” can come really easily. Try “yes…and” instead. Rather than auto-denying, find ways to say yes. Rather than ending with a period or adding a “but,” try saying “and” and adding to the flow. Notice how this practice can invite options and ideas. Notice how there can be space for multiple ideas and opinions. Notice how, when you hear “yes…and” instead of “no…but,” you feel more open and safe. If more people in the world talked to each other from a “yes…and” position, I firmly believe that we would live in a kinder world. You can read more of what I have to say about “yes…and” here.
- Expressing feelings on stage is one thing that really draws people in, and it is a key piece in developing on-stage relationships. Guess what. Expressing feelings is also a key piece in growing and developing relationships off stage. This is especially true in our close, personal relationships. Have you ever met two people who have tidily isolated themselves into separate rooms and whose only conversations are about the weather, the kids’ homework, or the brand of coffee they buy? I have. I’ve actually been in that kind of relationship.
Emotional expression is vulnerable and scary – for some folks more than others, and, the truth is that, without it, we become distant, robotic, colorless, and disconnected. Granted, in Improv, we often over emote and overreact – neither is a great way to go in the real-world. Being connected to how you feel and learning to express those feelings in a meaningful way to those who matter to you IS a great way to go. There’s more about this right here.
- Hyperlistening is one of the 4 tenets of on-stage relationship building in Improv. It entails paying very close attention to everything about your scene partner – their facial expression, body language, voice and volume, any ticks, clicks, jitters, and jumps, and absolutely EVERYTHING they say. This translates well into what I refer to with my clients as deep listening. Have you ever felt really heard – where you just knew that the person you were talking to was fully present? They may not agree with what you are saying, and they may not even completely understand, but you can FEEL them being completely there with you? That’s deep listening. It’s a gift that we give the people in our lives, and it’s not always easy. We are, as a rule, so distracted. We are so busy, and our minds can be so noisy. We are also almost always more worried about what we’re going to say than we are about what’s being said. But if you’ve ever felt it…whether it was a friend, a beloved, or a therapist that gave you the gift, you know how special it is. Try it sometime. When you’re with someone, take a deep breath and set your mind to tune in to them. Hyperlisten. Be fully present. It is a game-changer.
- Proximity and Touch can help us define the inner and outer workings of a relationship on stage. We can show our scene partner and the audience who we are to each other and how we feel. When used skillfully, we could do a whole scene using just this physicality, without words, and the audience would go along for the ride.
When we teach Proximity and Touch lessons in our classes, we also talk a lot about boundaries. What are you okay with, what isn’t okay? What are your classmates okay with? It’s important information. Paying attention to this stuff in your real-world relationships is of the utmost importance too. Here are three suggestions to help you make the most of proximity and touch in relationships of all kinds:
- Always be aware of how you feel internally;
- Be as aware as possible of your partner’s* feelings (hyper- or deep listening), and if you are unclear, ASK;
- If you or your partner don’t have an enthusiastic yes about either your proximity or level of touch, back off and reassess.
- Silence is deep and precious, and it’s also often missing on the Improv stage. Most of us talk too much. We talk to fill space. I will always assert that we talk because we’re nervous, at least most of the time. Shutting up is hard, but on stage, it can be magic. It shows emotions – anger, love, worry, confusion, fear… It builds tension. It can be a brilliant set up for that perfect one line of dialogue that ties it all together and makes the audience laugh or sigh in delight. Silence is golden. The ability to be silent on and off stage is a skill.
Silence inside an intimate relationship, when used lovingly can bring depth and sweetness into the room. The ability to sit in silence with another person denotes trust, and practicing being in silence together builds trust. We often spend time filling our spaces – around us, between us and within us – with chatter and noise. Instead of talking, try breathing together, shoulder to shoulder or hand in hand. Let the moments grow around you. See what happens.
I’m not saying you have to do Improv in order to have strong, interesting relationships. I know plenty of non-improvisers out there who make a point of living juicy, relationship filled lives and who practice using the tools we teach in our classes. But I will say this: if you want to see shifts in your relationship patterns with your honey, honeys, friends, frienemies, coworkers, neighbors, family, and even your favorite barista, getting into Improv might not be a bad idea. And if you’re already an improviser – taking all those nifty tricks you use on stage out into the world might make the world around you a better, more interesting, and connected place.
*The term “partner” is used here to describe anyone you are communicating with in any given moment.