Last week I interviewed Chicago comedian Kelsie Huff for an episode of Improv Nerd, who runs a very popular stand-up class for women called Fem Com. In the interview, Kelsie talked about how important it is to create an environment in class where women feel supported and nurtured and don’t have to apologize for what they say.
I love Kelsie’s philosophy, and I think feeling supported is as important in an improv class as it is in a stand-up class. Until our conversation, it’s something I took for granted: You cannot expect people to take risks unless they feel supported. Without that support in the room, we really cannot do they work we need to do.
There is a saying that I believe they use in a lot of 12-step programs that goes: “We are going to love you until your love yourself.” That applies to improv.
If you are like most of us who come into improv, when we first come in, there is part of us that is broken. We have been criticized far more in life than we’ve been complimented. We are very fragile, we just don’t know to what degree. We have been so beaten up and beaten down, and all we want is to learn how to express our tiny little voice in the big bad world. So we take an improv class even though we are terrified, assuming that the teachers will tell us what we’re doing wrong and beat us down like our family did growing up.
Instead, we experience just the opposite. We experience a culture of acceptance and support and are told that there are no mistakes, which is can be a mind fuck for most people. Really? No mistakes? How can that be?
That’s why improv can be such an aphrodisiac. Of course, as we get stronger and more experienced, we can handle more competitive improv programs and we do not need the hand-holding of our first classes, but in the beginning, feeling supported is absolutely essential.
When I teach my level one improv class for The Art of Slow Comedy, I bust my ass to make sure the students start to trust me, the class and the process, and to understand that this is a safe place to express themselves (though this has become a little more trickier over the years).
In my first level, I make sure to spend a lot of time on play. I use a lot of warm-up games, and once I hear them laughing, I know that they’re starting to bond and their defenses are coming down. Throughout the term, I use various improv games and exercises to encourage them to create free-flowing dialogue and respond to their partner. I want to reinforce that there is no pressure to be funny, and I tread lightly on the so-called improv rules so people don’t get in their heads.
When all of these things are working, the class suspends their judgments and insecurities for two hours and starts to truly collaborate. As cynical as I am, what we are creating in class is an environment of unconditional love. And that is truly a beautiful thing.