I had the pleasure of putting my GCAC grant money toward classes at Second City. I'm not an actor. I sort of used to be, but I'm not any more. I was very worried about spending a week learning improv with people far funnier than I am. Luckily, I learned that I am a funny guy. The instructor was full of wisdom. So much so that this is at least a two-part article. One is about the actual 'practical' things I learned about the techniques of improv. This one is about the soul of it.
Here's a 15-hour class distilled down to 4 quotes from John Hildreth.
“You're an improv actor. Your job is to get out there and make a scene."
Use your sense of urgency and get out there. The audience doesn't want to watch you saunter up to the front of the stage, tag the other actors out, and then think for a moment while you decide what to do. Keep the momentum going.
You do this in a scene by committing to the first thing that comes to mind. Improv is spontaneous. Part of the fun for you and for the audience is figuring out how to make ridiculous things that come to mind work in the context of your scene.
"An improviser is not second to go, they are first to support."
Leading a scene is easy. You can say whatever you want to kick it off and it will be true. You don't have to react to anything. Being the other person on stage who has to take your words, agree to them, and add to the scene has the hard job.
When you're an improviser, you can't say whatever you want. Your line must organically add to the world that's already being created. It can be a weird world, but it has to fit together.
"Make it worse."
If the first character is at their father's funeral, be their birth dad. If someone sees a rat, you see ten rats and they're combining together to form some kind of rat king. Leap on any conflict to heighten the situation and really highlight what's going on in the scene.
"This isn't a class on how to be funny."
John told us this on the last day. When I signed up for the class, this was exactly what I'd hoped he'd say. While going to see improv is usually about the comedy, creating it can't be. If you're trying hard to be funny, then you're not following the three rules of improv.
Trying to come up with jokes makes you think ahead and prevents you from being spontaneous. Sometimes, comedy won't organically fit into a scene. And if someone heightens your scene, you might not be able to use the same joke.
Like many arts, you can be born naturally funny. You can also cultivate a good sense of humor, but that takes a lot more work than covering the basic structure of how to improv.