“You’re doing it wrong,” I didn’t say out loud, but I wanted to.
I was in my first class with a new improv group, more than a thousand miles from ComedySportz® Richmond. Nostalgically, I compared my current situation with my very first improv class at CSz Richmond and I acknowledged the similarities and differences. There was the same uneasiness stemming from entering an unfamiliar building to play with a bunch of strangers.
But this time, I had experience to back me up and when it came time to introduce myself, I was proud to say that I had been a Minor League Player at ComedySportz® Richmond. As if anyone knew what a big deal that is. As if they grasped the fact that CSz Richmond is the center of the improv universe. At least, it is for me. Unimpressed with my dazzling credentials, the teacher moved on to warm-up games.
Warm-up exercises are essential to improv. When you’re new, these games can really shake you up and force you to think on your feet and be in the moment. In split seconds, you must listen and respond without contemplation or planning. But with repetition, a shift had occurred in my approach to these games over the past couple of years. I had developed a sort of muscle memory, which allowed me the confidence of knowing I could easily play the games with few mistakes.
“Whiskey Mixer” is one of my favorite examples. Technically, I had mastered the rules of the game long ago. I could smoothly articulate the correct tongue twister to the appropriate player at the proper moment again and again without tripping up. By flawlessly executing these mechanical moves without blunder, I could hold onto my spot in the circle while my fellow players ran around, holding their sides and giggling because they’d gotten tongue-tied. They were laughing and playing, and yet somehow I thought I was doing it right.
I was missing the point. Mastering a game to the point of perfection is not improv. Such precision can have some value in the real world but it does not belong at improv practice. Warm-up games should challenge and stretch us. They should humble us. Christine Walters, my first improv teacher, had told us to celebrate our mistakes. But somewhere along the way, I had come to rely on repetition and familiarity to protect myself from failure. Anyone who has taken at least one improv class knows there is no such thing as failure.
When I found myself playing “Whiskey Mixer” with the improvisers in my new class, my muscle memory was worthless because the rules had changed. That group of people didn’t play the game the way I was used to playing it. Left was right. Right was left. Don’t even get me started on the hand gestures and the cheering. That’s when I wanted to shout, “You’re doing it wrong!” I wanted to tell them they were mistaken on the rules. I wanted to teach them the correct way to play. But there is no correct way.
My new classmates weren’t playing the game wrong. It’s improv. The moment I expected to play the game exactly how I’ve always played, I was the one who had it all wrong.
Lisa “Later or Sooner” Swope is a ComedySportz® Richmond Alumni now doing wrong right left of the Mississippi at OKC Improv.