Improv is for everyone, writes performer Pippa Evans in her new book (excerpted below)
People often say, “I can’t believe you improvise for a living. I could never do that!” To which I have to reply, “But you could. You do it all the time!” Humans are brilliant improvisers without even noticing it. When you go to get the train to work and the train is cancelled, what do you do? You improvise.
“I’ll call Hardeep and see if I can get a lift.”
“I’ll walk – it’s only three miles.”
“I’ll pretend to work from home, but really eat Nutella out of the jar all day in my pants.”
I’m not here to judge how you live your life, just to help you navigate it more fully. Make sure you are enjoying each spoonful of that tasty, tasty chocolate spread.
When you go to the supermarket and there is no lettuce left (true story) so you have to re-plan your meal (even though you were really looking forward to that salad), that is improvising. It is using what is there, in the moment, and making something new.
“No lettuce? Darn. I’ll have to have chips instead.”
Improvisation is a mystery to many people, because it is so tied up in its identity as a comedy show, rather than a skill in, and of, itself. So for this book, I would like to use the following definition for improvisation:
Improvisation is the art of using what is available to you in the moment.
Is it the best definition? I don’t know – are you the Oxford Dictionary? This definition works for me because the strongest improvisers are the ones who have unlimited access to everything they possess. “What is available to you” means the people around you, the props on the table and the treasure trove that is yourself. Your thoughts, your words, your responses, your presence in the moment.
The best improvisers are not loud show-offs (not all of them, anyway) – they are curious and interested in the world around them. They want to expand their general knowledge, to be equipped for every scenario. They want to notice every detail, in case it tells them something new or interesting about a character they might play or a scenario they might find themselves in. The general principle of acceptance that runs through improvisation encourages the improviser to notice something rather than rush to judge it.
Improvisers often have varied but deep interests. Amongst my colleagues there is a deep knowledge of jazz, online gaming, alternative lifestyles, pottery, horror, musical theatre, folk music, the Bible, Warhammer and politics. Being interested in the world around you makes you interesting. Curiosity is contagious and fosters the realisation that life is about more than just ourselves. Life is about interacting with the world around us.
To be a top improviser you need, more than anything, to be curious. If you aren’t interested in the world or the people around you, then improv is not gonna be an easy place for you. But it can be a way to foster curiosity. And the first thing you need to be curious about is yourself.
Once you get inside yourself, you can get over yourself, and then you can connect to other people.
To paraphrase our favourite drag queen:
“If you can’t love you, how will you love anyone else?”
Which I always want to expand to:
“If you don’t know yourself, how will anyone else?”
And in improv terms:
“If you can’t say ‘yes’ to yourself, why would anyone else?”
Excerpt from Improv Your Life: An Improviser’s Guide to Embracing Whatever Life Throws At You by Pippa Evans (Hodder Studio). Buy a copy here.
Pippa Evans is a special guest on “A Drink with the Idler” on Thursday 6 May. Get tickets here.