by Tony Lowe
I am a student studying philosophy politics and ethics. It’s a weighty subject full of debates and essays that seems to be nothing like improv… we can’t just say what we want, everything we argue must be backed up by reasons and a lot of what we do is pre-meditated. We are constantly searching for the weak spots: places where arguments fail, whether they belong to us or to others. Improv, on the other hand, seems to be entirely different. When I did my improv classes with the Maydays we were told to let loose, to fail and to fail over and over again. It doesn’t have to make sense, just go for it! When you’re face-to-face with a stranger trying to figure out where the story is going next you can’t focus on the flaws, nor can you control or pre-meditate the script. It has to happen there! Now! And the only way you can make it work is by accepting the person and their reality. If a philosophy student spends their time saying yes, but… an improv actor spends their time saying yes, and…!
To experience this dichotomy isn’t only fun, it’s interesting. And it’s scary. Whether we are being professional or not, we are so used to putting checks and balances on our actions that being told to let loose in front of a group of strangers (whilst sober!) can be like getting caught in headlights. It’s a hurdle. But once that hurdle is under-foot it’s fun to throw yourself at a scene, to let loose and see what happens because, interestingly, something does happen – it has to! For some strange reason you find that, placed in that moment – feeling comfortable and ready, creativity rises out of the blue without rhyme or long thought-out reason. Of course, you’ll fail many times before then, but hey, it’s comedy and mistakes are funny.
Mistakes also help us learn. Failure is essential to success and this is where I find the dichotomy between professionalism and improv madness so interesting because there are at least two skills that you develop in improv that are important for a professional life. The first is to try, fail, accept failure and try again, and the second skill is listening; really listening to people. When doing an improv class, you can only be ready to react to what people say if you pay attention to them. That’s why I feel like I’ve learnt something with the Maydays that I can bring back to the classroom. I haven’t only learnt how to step outside of a critical mindset, but I have learnt to be more present when engaging critically with other people. If I’m arguing with someone and the two of us are trying to get at the truth it’s much easier to do if I listen to them and accept their reality because by taking their position I can see the world from that point of view, and if I believe that there is someplace – some idea – that they need convincing of, I can only move them towards it once I know where they are moving from. In essence, it’s the skill of understanding others and helping them understand you by using a basic means of human cooperation: empathy. A skill that is useful far beyond that classroom.
I will carry on playing with the Maydays. Foremost for the fun of it, but – on top of that – because I believe that the lessons make me a better student and perhaps, ultimately, a better person.