Yep! Most probably!
I feel like I get asked this question a lot. Or at least some version of it like “What exercises are there that will help me get better on my own!” And I never answer it… so I’ll do my best to answer it now!
The reason I normally dance around answering this question is because I don’t know. I’ve never found a way to work on improv skills outside of performing or class or practice sessions. Not really. I think it is such a collaborative thing that there isn’t really any good way to literally work on it without other people. I have never encountered a personal, solo exercise that I found helpful. So, my base answer would be nope! I don’t have any every day drills that I practiced in daily life!
That said (and you must have known there would be a “that said” coming), here are a few things that I think can help you as an improviser outside of practicing with a group or class:
- Go see shows. Obviously. And really watch them with a critical eye. Why do you like what works, and why do you not like what doesn’t.
- Don’t JUST go see shows. A lot of people when they get into improv go see shows all the time. UCB, IO, Indie nights… they spend night after night in that world. I did when I was starting! And I think that’s destructive. You need to lead a life and have experiences that are completely non-comedy related, otherwise, you’re going to do scenes based on scenes. Improv based on improv. And that will lead to shitty work.
- Similarly, read a book. Or better yet, read multiple books. To be a good improviser, you need to be curious, you need to be open to new ideas and and you need to be constantly learning. So read a book a week. Go see movies that you normally wouldn’t see. Engage in activities you haven’t done before. Absorb everything you can. The best improvisers are people who know things and continue to see out new knowledge. If you’re not doing that, you’re going to stall out. Plus, it makes you a better person.
- Lastly, make sure you are good at conversation. Conversation in real life follows the same rules as conversation in an improv scene. Check yourself when you’re just out and about, make sure you are actively listening and responding to everyone you interact with. Friends, family, waitstaff, the people behind the snack counter at Arclight who all have “There Will Be Blood” listed as their favorite movie. Engage them all, and make sure you really hear them when they talk, and respond to them. Make it second nature, if it isn’t already. If you’re a good conversationalist, you’re over half way to being a good improviser.
Sorry I don’t have anything more concrete than that! I’d love to be able to say “do crazy 8s alone in your bathroom”, but in reality, that’d just make you a lunatic.
Years ago, when Sentimental Lady was on Harold Night, there was a night where Robin Williams came by the theater and asked if there were any improv shows he could sit in on. He didn’t ask in an entitled way. He apologized for asking, seemed to think that the answer would be “no”, and clearly had no idea that he was surrounded by people that had their formative years filled with his work. He had no idea that everyone he was interacting with was in awe of the fact that they were talking to Genie, or Mork, or any number other roles that we grew up with. So, obviously, we said yes.
Backstage, before the show, we all chatted, trying to pretend we weren’t blown away that he’d want to play with us. I remember we talked about history in general and the World War 1 Christmas Truce specifically. He was fascinated by the fact that even in the middle of trying to kill each other, those soldiers wanted to find a way just to be human together. It was kinda heady talk for twenty minutes before an improv show.
He kept asking us, making sure it was ok that he sat in. It was.
At some point, someone asked him what brought him to UCB that night. He said that he had come down from San Francisco for work and to visit his daughter. She was in the audience, and he wanted to perform for her.
We all nodded. That made sense.
Then he went on. He told us that he wanted to prove that he could be at UCB…. The last time he had come around, he had been drinking and in a bad place. He wasn’t sure how he had come across. And he wanted to be there that night, sober, to show himself that he could. He said: “it’s important to me to be around younger generations making comedy. It gives me great joy.” I think about that all the time. Just being around people that were passionate about the thing that he was passionate about, to see people doing the things that he had been doing for thirty years, made him happy. And, at that point, he had shaken one monkey off his back, and this low stakes improv show, where he’d play both the pope and a peeping tom, was proof to himself that he could do it. And then we went on stage and the crowd lost its mind when they saw him and he was funny as fuck.
Before our shows, for the past six years, we do a warm up called thumper. Everyone just says some dumb phrase and does some dumb action and we all repeat it, each week adding new ones on to the ones from the week before. His was to throw his hands up and yell “I’m lactating and I don’t care.” We still do it, just as he did, every week.