Say the obvious thing: Life lessons from improv

I attended my first improvisational theater workshop last week. Improv is all about staying present and quieting the inner doomsayer and playing with what shows up in each moment, even when it isn’t what you planned. Improv is the opposite of planning. That’s helpful for an uber-planner like me.

Some useful life skills I got to practice during the three-hour workshop:

Be average. Don’t worry about whether your idea is funny or sufficiently creative. Say the obvious thing.  Stories need the obvious to move forward. Also, what’s obvious to you may not be obvious to others. Jump in!

That means if a scene calls for a car, go ahead and be a car. You don’t have to think up a submarine or giraffe. (Although if you thought of a submarine or giraffe instead of a car, that’s cool too.)

Let go of control. Your partner might have a different idea than you do of where the story is going. Together, you can take it in completely unexpected directions.

If you pretend to hand your partner a baby, and they say “Thank you for the cat,” and you say “No, but it’s a baby,” one of you then has to spend a lot of time explaining why it’s a (baby) and not a (cat) and the scene spirals down from there. You’ll have a lot more fun if you just go with it. (A humanoid cat?) It’s fun to share control. Seriously!

Take a Circus Bow. When something doesn’t work, do a Ta-Da: “Yay, I failed! Yay, I let go of the trapeze! Missed the other trapeze and fell into the net! Applause for me!”

Remember you don’t have to do it alone. Other people will step in when you’re stumped. You’re looking out for each other. You’re in good hands.


  1. Wow, Janet! You took one workshop and distilled the essence of so much improv wisdom into one short post! Trying too hard to be clever or creative in an improv scene is a real stumbling block for me. My biggest breakthrough (so far) came the day that our instructor challenged us to be deliberately uninteresting The feelings of relief and liberation that came from that were wonderful!

    Go you, for jumping in the deep end and taking the workshop. Glad you enjoyed it so much.

  2. Janet Bailey says:

    @Michelle – Deliberately uninteresting—love it!

  3. Diane says:

    Wonderful summary of the lessons learned, Janet! Thanks so much… no matter how many times I hear these lessons, they sound fresh every time!

  4. Janet Bailey says:

    @Diane – Thank you—looking forward to more improv, and learning them again!

  5. Fred Card says:

    I was reading blogs on time management when I stumbled across this one and stopped for a second to wonder what it would be like to apply this advice to professional in corporate America. Many companies are driving this whole “Excellence in Everything We Do” thing. Or, maybe applying it to life in general: Just be average, let go of control, relax, and try to enjoy the short time we have here. Might be worth some further thought.

  6. Janet Bailey says:

    @Fred – Some companies bring improv trainers in to give workshops for their employees—now that sounds like a great gig.

  7. jayanthi G says:

    the points that you have mentioned are useful.. now i am in my end semester.. i got a job as a teacher in a CBSE school(private)… but i would like to prepare for competetive exam simultaneously.. so i want to know how to manange time and do the best in both..

  8. Janet Bailey says:

    @Jayanthi – I think these ideas would be wonderful for classroom teaching, and might help you stay calm during your own exam prep too—good luck!

  9. A very useful post, you must have enjoyed yourself at this workshop. I have attended several taster sessions for improv and have found it very entertaining to see how people interact on a spontaneous basis. I find improvising works a lot better than a scripted drama because most importantly, nothing can go wrong, well an improv can be good or bad, but off the book anything goes!

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