If you dropped by the Free Class at Westside more than once in 2015, you probably noticed I followed the same outline every time. The owners of the theater and I designed this class, occasionally swapping out one game for another but always hitting the same beats. As the class continued, I found myself repeating some of the same lines over and over, but because the mix of students changed, it never felt old to me. Here’s how I’d start class every week:
Hey! Welcome to Westside! If you have performed at Second City or iO or somewhere for years and years, you’re in the right place. If you have never been on a stage in your life, you are also in the right place! Go around and say your name and if you have any improv or performance experience.
My name is Alyssa, and I’ve been doing various kinds of improv for about 14 years, which is half of my life.
(Someone has performed for years, though they recently took a bit of a break and are trying to shake the rust off. Someone else maybe saw an episode of Whose Line once. Someone’s new to me, and someone else has been coming for a dozen weeks straight. I try and usually fail to memorize everyone’s names right away.)
When you think of improv, what do you think of?
(People say funny, smart, witty, fast. Someone says guessing games. Someone says TJ and Dave.)
So I just heard about a lot of different kinds of improv — short form like Whose Line Is It Anyway, long form like many Chicago theaters — even different long form theaters have different approaches. But all those kinds of improv have at least one thing in common at their foundation, which is the idea of saying YES.
Depending on what you do up at street level, you probably say no a lot. I’m a teacher for little kids, so I say no a lot, because little kids sometimes want ridiculous or impossible things. Saying no can be healthy and necessary to protect ourselves and others. But down here, you can assume that everyone here is on your side, so you can afford to say yes. Making that switch takes practice, so now we’re going to practice.
Point to someone, wait for them to say yes, then move to take their spot in the circle. Once you’ve said yes to someone, point to someone else, wait for a yes, then move. Your feet are glued to the ground until someone has said yes to you.
(We play this game for several minutes until we find and enjoy a rhythm. If the group was bigger and caught on quickly, I’d have two or three people pointing and moving at a time instead of just one person.)
What made that easier?
Eye contact made it easier! Let’s remember that. Look people in the eyes.
Pointing specifically instead of vaguely made it easier! Specificity is awesome. Let’s remember that, too.
Not worrying about WHO you are going to point to next also made it easier! There’s no wrong person to point to. Nobody here said no to anybody. Let’s remember that: the people in this room are going to say yes to you for the next hour and a half.
Finding a rhythm made it easier! Sometimes you’ll see a group that looks like they’re reading each other’s minds. They’re not. We haven’t figured out telepathy yet. They’re just saying yes in a particular rhythm, which, to an audience, looks like magic.