Improv For Introverts: A Crash Course in Social Skills

My name is Kate, and I am an introvert. I was in denial for a long time.  Yes, I prefer avoiding small talk and large crowds, but who doesn’t really? One of my biggest fears is walking down the street and having a random stranger ask me, "how it’s going?" They might as well ask if I’d like to step into the back of their van and get murdered. After all these years engaging dogs in conversation while ignoring their human companions, it dawned on me: I’m an introvert. 

Apparently I'm also a bit of a masochist, which is clearly why I signed up for an improv class last December. I was living in New Jersey at the time, and figured I needed to literally get out of my comfort zone after sitting inside for two months avoiding the snow. I took that a step further by signing up for a week-long “Improv 101: Intensive” class with New York’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade. It was by far the most terrifying week of my life—in a good way.  

For those of you who’ve never done it, here’s how I would describe an improv class: it’s a combination of high school French and clown school. It feels like learning a new language while crawling on the floor, becoming your inner jungle cat. It’s also a bit like falling in love. You’re nervous, but excited, you jumble your words, and you distrust your bowels. Even for those who call themselves extroverts, it can be intimidating to “just wing it” in front of a room of people you barely know. 

A teacher in that particular class suggested I, "amp it up by about 400%" if I wanted to match the normal, baseline level of enthusiasm of the rest of the class. What I thought I was doing to an extreme, I’m was actually doing with the intensity of a narcoleptic turtle. This is good information to have the next time I want to seem excited about a trip to Ikea and need to sell it. 

When learning to do improv, there’s plenty of self-discovery involved, along with a handful of practical tools for navigating social situations:

  1. One of the first things you learn in improv is to “yes and”. All this means is that you support what your partner has initiated and you approach the scene with an open mind. This is useful when with a group of friends who can’t decide where to eat. Everyone's got the Yelp app up, everyone’s throwing out wild suggestions, but no one can make a decision. And I think w can all agree there’s nothing worse than a person who shoots everything down and doesn’t offer solutions. So say yes to sushi for dinner and burgers for dessert. Life is short. 

  2. Ask fewer questions and make more statements. When starting a scene with questions like, “What’s in that box?” or “Who are we, and what are we doing here?” you put a lot of pressure on your scene partner to answer those questions and build the scene practically on their own. Flip that paradigm around and add start the scene with with a declarative statement. You could say, “Hey, there’s a miniature llama in that box!” or “I’m so happy you came to the gynecologist with me, Dad.” The same goes for casual conversations. Beginning with, “What’s the meaning of life?” at a cocktail party can get real awkward, real fast. I’ve found that people get uncomfortable when you hit them with this one right off the bat. Additionally, no one seems to like it when I halt a history argument by asking, “Do we even know if linear time exists?” Instead, I've learned to turn those questions into statements. Start a conversation with “The meaning of life has to do with puppies.” Now you’re telling a story people can get behind.

  3. There are no mistakes. There are only opportunities. If you’re trying to enter a scene as a housewife and your partner wants you to be a leopard, roll with it. You could end up doing something fun with cougars there. Or plastic surgery, Or zoos. Whatever—it’ll be fun. Everything is a gift. By relinquishing control, you can focus on the task at hand and propel the scene forward. Most people want to move forward; as humans we savor momentum; don't stymie the situation by shutting down or systematically derailing people's conversation topics. (Unless you're into getting the hairy eyeball all the time.) 

Basically, do these three things to perform great improv and win at life. Of course, it's easier said than done. Sometimes the perfect line lands in my head at exactly the right moment. Other times, the perfect comeback arrives three days after an angry cab driver tells me to “eat a bag of dicks.” It’s a process. 


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