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  • Writer's pictureStephen Paul

"Do you mind if I spit on that?" - my first Improv lesson.

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

I've attended a few of the Free Radical events and much enjoyed chatting with its founder David Robertson. And it was he who convinced me that a few improv skills could enhance one's everyday life. Each Wednesday upstairs at Brewdog, Reading there is a drop-in improvisation class with "What's the Game Improv". It is well attended, mainly with people in their 20s and 30s and a few older ones such as myself. I did not feel out of place in slightest. There is a good mix of males and females. Seamus is a lovely host giving clear, supportive & encouraging guidance throughout. It is made clear at the beginning that this is not about you being a funny show-off, it's about being a supportive member of a team, where you learn to be conscious of each other's needs and ideas. Your goal is to support others in their creativity not to make it about you. It is explained that creating a natural dialogue between identifiable characters in a visualizable scene with a comprehensible narrative is much more engaging than attempting to go for cheap laughs in an unfathomable surrealist mess. It's about freeing your imagination - don't worry that you will blank, others will save you, and anyway if you follow the advice the ideas are sure to come. We start the evening with a game of Dutch clapping, to free our bodies to move, our minds to make rapid decisions on simple tasks, and to work with another. We then play a version of rock, paper, scissors that turns into a very loud supportive team event. This is all very Sunday Assemblyish*. We next work with a random partner to dig and find an unknown object and between us discuss what it might be - hence this post's title, of course. Then we flip to another partner to whom we try to explain our find, but all they can do is incessantly and enthusiastically ask questions - it's great fun to play. We then break into groups of 5 where we support each other in creating a story. This is the first time where you need to put yourself forward in order to participate. It's easy for the louder people in your group to take control of the proceedings but Seamus is quick to remind us to be mindful of creating the space within our group to allow all to contribute and at a level that each is comfortable with. We are told to enforce the story that is being created, not to act against it, to be wide-eyed with enthusiasm for others' contributions. Next, we randomly find another partner and I find a young woman called Becky. We all then sit to listen to Seamus, for the next exercise is to 'perform' in our pairs in front of everyone else. For us newbies, this where the apprehension kicks in. We are given clear instructions on the requirements of the 20-second scene: character names, where they are, and the thing they are attempting to do. At this point, you are most probably not sitting with your partner so you can't plan this between you, but that is the whole point of the evening - it is improv. As mine and Becky's turn creeps towards us I think of a possible starting point of our scene, and no doubt she is thinking the same - but it won't be the same scene. As other pairs do their stint and get love from the audience, one has to remove that last seen sketch from one's mind - you don't want to copy anyone else's. I held the idea of getting into a rowing boat and then waited to see what would come from that. Becky and I step in front of the other 30 improvisers and I say to Becky "Valerie would you like to get in first?" and point at the floor. Suddenly, it is not a rowing boat in my mind but a bobsleigh - although this is not stated out loud. Valerie's slow and confused air on what is happening is made apparent when she asks "should we go any faster?" as it is obvious we are barely moving. I reply in a gentle and in an understated way "I think we should, it is the Olympics." The audience laughs and we have succeeded in our first performance. I'm relieved that the ideas came when they were needed and appreciated the confidence Seamus instilled. During the 20 seconds, I was conscious of Becky and the scene we were creating - the audience hardly at all. For the finale, we are back in our groups to do a variety of sales pitches of a new TV programme based on attributes suggested by the audience to the audience. We got a "romcom set in Syria between gardeners". Within your group there will be experienced improvisers who can fill the gaps - if this is your first time no one is going to think less of you if you don't step forward - it happens all the time, just being there and normalising the situation is an important start. I was far from being the most contributing person in our team, but a few ideas came to mind, which the audience liked and my fellow team members could use. Success! I chatted with my friends after the lesson and all loved it and would do it again - regardless that sometimes they froze. If we were already brilliant at this why would we come for lessons in the first place? The takeaway is, did you learn something and did it make you feel good? Did you Live Better? Believe me, it will be a yes. Not ready for the full experience yet? Well, luck shines upon you for on Jan 20th @ 10:45 a.m. The Free Radicals will be at Sunday Assembly Reading giving you a taste of Improv and how having an attitude of "yes and ....' rather than "yes but ..." or worse "no because ..." is going to make you a happier person. * Sunday Assembly's co-founder was Pippa Evans, who is an Improv superstar.

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