This post was written by Shawn Westfall, Improv Guru.

Begin with the End in Mind: A Post Mortem (and a Drink)

One of the “traditions” I’ve established during my eight-year history of teaching beginning improvisational comedy classes at the DC Improv is what I call “the-after-the-class-drinks-and-post-mortem”: everyone of drinking age retires to a local pub to share their experiences of the class. Approximately 17 people squeeze into a medium-sized booth at a local Irish pub to hoist their potable preferences, where I then invite their class critiques. Hey, it’s better than some formalized written class critique. Plus, there’s booze.

I start the discussion by inviting students and their classmates to be completely candid about their favorite moment or moments in the class, as well as their least favorite moment or moments in the class.

Their answers are naturally as varied as the individuals taking the class: some don’t like a few of the warm-ups and exercises (one warm-up in particular gets plenty of animadversions, not because the students don’t find it effective, but primarily because it involves singing), while others enjoy them. Many focus on one particular scene that gave them trouble, or a scene that they found particularly rewarding. Most often their favorite moments weren’t the improv scenes they themselves were in, but rather ones in which their classmates made them laugh, or displayed an aspect of their classmates’ personalities in new or unexpected ways.

But, invariably, the students turn the tables one me: what, they ask, wereyour least favorite and favorite moments? Regarding my favorite moment, my answer never varies, not because I’m lazy or insincere, but because, even after eight years of teaching this class, that moment (which may more accurately be described as a series of moments) never ceases to astound me.

The Power to Transform

On the first night of class, I greet my students as they walk in and sit down. They’re quiet, as if they’re in church, and choose seats equidistant apart from each other. Then, after a brief introduction to the class (logistics, expectations), I ask them to introduce themselves one-by-one and tell the rest of the class why they’re taking improvisational comedy class.

Some of the responses are sincere, but are purposefully canned, planned ahead, consciously “joke-y.” As the jokey introductions are told, I scan the room, specifically watching the eyes of the other students. Some seem intimidated. Some make notes, prepping the “joke” they’re going to make when it’s their turn. You can almost see the wheels turning: “he seems funny”; “she seems really confident – there’s no way I’ll be able to compete with that,” they seem to be thinking.

But, as the class moves forward, first subtle and then not-so-subtle changes take place. As they get up on stage, become less intimated by each other and by this art form and begin making each other laugh, those spaces that kept them apart begin to diminish: chairs eventually move closer together, conservations on breaks more frequent, more rife with laughter. You can see the walls and defenses coming down, and more importantly, you can see friendships and connections being made by people from every cultural strata that Washington, DC offers, between people who would normally pass each other on the street without a word: the high-profile K Street lawyer befriending the public school teacher; the NRA lobbyist and the Eco-friendly non-profit administrator sharing laughs.

The Team that Laughs Together, Lasts Together

It’s a lesson I learned long ago: it’s really, really difficult to dislike someone who’s making you laugh. In fact, when we say we “miss” someone, what we’re actually saying is that we miss laughing with that person, the shared jokes or stories or experiences that result or resulted in laughter. Not only do my students eventually come to like one another, they have, more importantly, come to trust one another, which is a necessary component of any successful improv scene.

The thing about improv? It quickly lays bare the trustworthiness of those involved. Since my students quickly come to understand that they succeed or fail together onstage, they quickly discern who’s going to support their choices, and make them look good on stage—and who isn’t. The fellow actor making selfish choices is easy to locate: first, by how often he or she compromises a scene by refusing to either engage with others or share the focus and attention; and second, by how reticent others in class are to work get on stage with that person. Conversely, the more generous and trustworthy one of my students is, the more readily others are to hop on stage with him or her: they trust that student will make them look good, often with hilarious results.

So that’s my favorite moment: when it becomes clear that my students have checked their egos at the door and begun to trust each other with their improv livelihoods, with the success of the scenes they are in; when they’ve allowed humor to help remove the real and imagined barriers that prevent them from connecting with each other; and when they recognize that they can trust each other, both on stage and off.

My least favorite moment? It’s when the class ends.

Originally published by BossaNova Consulting Group, Inc.
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Shawn Westfall

As The Get Real Project’s Improv Guru (a title that was bestowed upon me), I help bring the principles of improv comedy to life in a practical and inspiring way for our clients. I show people how being honest, truthful, vulnerable and authentic is not only necessary for successful improv comedy, but can understandably transform organizational cultures.

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