The folding chairs formed a circle in a nondescript roomâ€”wood floors, brick walls, cups and a pitcher of water on the floor in the corner. It looked like every 12-step meeting ever depicted on screen. It was, instead, my first improv class ever. The day before we took our seats in that circle, my daughter Kristi and I finally signed up at Third Coast Comedy Training Center in Nashville, TN.
Our class of twelve had just finished playing one of those mixer games Iâ€™d always hated as a youth leader. Say your name with some elaborate a motion. It was supposed to help us remember everyoneâ€™s names and loosen us up.
Sitting in the circle we take turns introducing ourselvesâ€”name (again), interest in the class, and any experience we have. I thought this might be coming, so I had prepared an answerâ€”this was my first improv classâ€”butÂ I wasnâ€™t ready for the answers from my classmates.
Several are actorsâ€”professionally, semi-professionally, college, and high school (Kristi). Three areÂ honing their acts as stand-up comedians by performing at open mics around Nashville. One studied with Improv Olympic (iO) in Chicago and our teacher with Upright Citizens Brigade and Second Cityâ€”even this improv novice has heard of these. With each answer, I ask myself the question I had been pondering all day, â€œWhy am I doing this?â€
When the person to my right finishes, it is my turn.
Out of my comfort zone
â€œIâ€™m Joe, and Iâ€™m way out of my comfort zone,â€ I begin. â€œI write for a website, spending most of my day behind a screen.â€ I decide they donâ€™t need to know that I’m a terrible actorâ€”high school church productions provide irrefutable evidence. Sure, I have experience and comfort on stage preaching, speaking, and leading praise bands, but that is not performing. I am always me.
In that split second, I remember the time I wasn’t. As a seminarian, I preached one of those â€œfirst person Bible characterâ€ sermons. To the people of the West Creek United Methodist Church who endured that experiment, Iâ€™m sorry.
â€œAs part of my job,â€ I continue, â€œI host a podcast where I interview people. Iâ€™ve heard improv can help me get better at listening and responding.â€ People nod, including the instructor. Ok, thatâ€™s enough.
As I finish, a sense of relief washes over me. My heart rate slowly returns to something normal as the last few people make their introductions. Then the instructor says, â€œThe goal tonight is to get comfortable looking stupid in front of each other.â€
Improv and life
So began my journey into improv. After graduation from Level 1, Iâ€™m still a terrible actor with no desire to perform, but Iâ€™m so glad I took this class. In addition to helping my interviewing abilities, my foray into this art form has me thinking about life, church, and my spiritual journey in new ways.
In a series of posts over the next several months, I will share some lessons for life from improv. Things like ‘yes, and…,’ justification, claiming space, bringing a brick, taking care of yourself, and more.
Read more of my improv posts.Â