Why Improv is Good for Your Brain

What if you could recapture the glee of imagining new worlds and build real-world skills at the same time?

Improvisational comedy could be that key to unlocking both your inner child and your outer adult.

Fun and playfulness

While it might seem scary to some — performing on stage with minimal props, no script and sometimes just a word of inspiration from the audience — improv is a supportive and inclusive art, and, as everyone interviewed for this story agreed, those who improvise do it in the spirit of having a good time.

There’s joy in creating something from nothing, says Regina Saisi, dean of BATS Improv's School of Improv in San Francisco and a member of the BATS Main Stage Company.

“It’s going back to childhood for me,” she says. “Joint imagination is so much fun.”

And if you can tap into your inner 6-year-old, the limits are endless.

“With improv, I can play anything,” she says. “As an actor, I’ll get cast. I’m not going to play the ingenue or be able to play the queen. I’m definitely not going to be able to play the prince. And I like to play men. It’s a range — it’s what I like.”

Improv can be a way to be silly, to play, to escape from the stress of life. Jim Pettibone, a Barnstable, Mass.-based acting and improv teacher, points to the importance of not getting caught up in routine.

“There are people who decide that, ‘This is the way the role I’ve taken on is to be played. And if I’m a parent, this is how I play the role of a parent.’ … But, if enough time passes and they don’t let other things out, then it becomes body armor, and that’s the only way they can move.”

Collaboration and teamwork

Improv also gives you the opportunity to practice working well with other people, says Ben Johnson, a BATS company member and coach. Learning how to effectively collaborate and work as a team is important, and it is the foundation of improvisation.

The concept of “yes, and …” is one of improv’s building blocks. It requires an improviser to accept what a fellow player says or offers (the “yes”) and then add something to it (the “and”). A “block” derails forward progress. Focus is also placed on making your partner the star, not feeding your own ego.

“I remember having the feeling of being kind of released of the obligation of being funny and clever,” Johnson says about his own early improv experience. “Listening really intently and telling a good story, making your partner look good … there’s something so good and regenerating about approaching the creative process like that.”

Saisi, a self-professed introvert, says she became a better listener because of improv.

Moreover, she says, improv is “about people. It’s about sharing stuff. It’s about building something together, and that’s different from other types of comedy and other types of art.”

Flexibility and adaptability

Melissa Holman-Kursky, assistant company manager for Un-Scripted Theater Company in San Francisco, points to the ever-changing nature of improv and how it forces you to learn to think on your feet.

You must have “the ability to kind of see how a situation is going, reflect on your part in it, real-time, and adjust,” she says. And because the ideas flow so freely on stage, “your idea is not precious. If it comes along at the wrong time, it has be discarded. In the interest of making a scene or project better, you have to be flexible.”

Pettibone and Johnson agree, saying that improv is all about staying in the here and now, being prepared to deal with the unexpected and adapting when it happens. And in being present, Pettibone says, “you feel alive. All the wheels are spinning, and cylinders are turning. You’ve gotta be at the top of your game.”

Tackling fear and taking risks

Even if you’re at the top of your game, when you’re an improviser, you’re going to fail. A lot. It’s the nature of the beast. But this is not a bad thing, says Holman-Kursky. Quite the opposite.

“The worst thing that can happen is not failing,” she says. “Improv means you experience the worst and see that the world doesn’t end.”

Because of this, she adds, improvisers learn persistence and grit and become bolder. But that’s partly due to the support of their fellow players.

“Whatever I’m given on stage, I’ll be able to make something happen,” she continues. “And I have people who can catch me. ... It’s great to know that your fellow performers are a safety net for each other.”

How to get started

“There are different ways of approaching improvisation, and different groups are going to have their own flavor,” Johnson says. “Check out shows, go to classes, and find the right flavor for you.”

Holman-Kursky, who started improvising with a college group, suggests checking out on-campus troupes or reading books and starting your own group.

Your boldness will be rewarded, says Saisi.

“I would love to guarantee that (you) would have a great time. Whatever it takes, take that one leap, and I think it will change your life.”

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13 Aug 2017

By Kay Keough