Self-Improv-ment: Level One

Atlas Improv on stage
Photo by Kelly Kittle

There are a multitude of studies out there that show public speaking still ranks as a top fear for humans, undiminished by the use of note cards, powerpoints, and teleprompters. This past summer, I decided to face that particular fear on behalf of you, the common nervous American, and study improv comedy.

I was lucky enough to enroll in Atlas Improv Co.'s level one class. Atlas, one of the two major improv troupes here in Madison, has been around since its inception in 2004, and has been offering the opportunity for interested citizens to dive into the unknown and learn how to craft something from nothing.

It seems like yesterday I was interviewing Daniel Row about being director of Atlas Improv Co., and now it’s already week seven of my class. Our teacher, Michael, starts to explain to the class the next game we're going to run through: Blind Lines. Two people will be starting a scene based off of a phrase gathered from one of the scrap pieces of paper scattered across the stage, all of which contain a phrase or quote. No other criteria, no other rules. Just our one starting line and two minds. I pick up one of the scraps, unfold it, and see the phrase “I have a house in the Hollywood hills.”

I repeat the line out loud. Within seconds, I choose to make my character a new screenwriter who just sold his new film, Lava Monster , for a large lump sum. My scene partner, a pre-middle-aged mother of three, tries to describe how my character’s newfound hubris has ruined our friendship, to which I replied with utter arrogance. I felt connected with not only my oddball screenwriter character, but the genuinely concerned (and modestly annoyed) friend my scene partner had created. Our scene wound up going for almost 10 minutes. Adding other colorful characters changed our made-up slice of California lifestyle into something tangible.

Welcome to improvisational comedy.

My class was filled with people whose goal was to combat their fear of public speaking or to improve upon their poise when delivering presentations or their upcoming college theses. We also had a local stand-up comedian who wanted to work on his stage presence. The most surprising aspect of my class was the inclusion of an entire nuclear family: mom, dad, teenage son, and preteen twins. I would imagine some people had reservations about trying to improvise with kids since adults tend to lose a
little energy or imagination as the years pass on. Lucky for everyone, the kids were just as quick and with it as the rest of us. The twins in particular had such a comedic shine to them that they would routinely destroy the room during their scenes.

My original intent in the first weeks was to be funnier. In retrospect, what a bad call. In those early weeks, I put too great an effort into trying to inject humor into the scene, and classmates told me I seemed like I was trying too hard.

Even Michael, our teacher and regular Atlas troupe member, advised us to abandon our urge to go for the laugh. “The main core of our improv,” says Michael, “is that while we tell jokes on stage all the time, we want to have real experiences on stage and real connection.” He emphasized that it's not super important to be funny. That, at least in my experience, tends to be a misconception about improvisational comedy—audiences focus too much on the comedy, not on the creation. “Just be in the scene with your partner.”

I would also fail early on in that regard to some degree. I would cheat sometimes by preloading ideas into my nervous lizard brain before I would walk on stage. I doubt I was the only one to do so. While eventually that urge faded, it took quite a few weeks to really let Michael's teachings sink in, coupled with some good old-fashioned concentrated effort.

I noticed myself trying less and less to be comedic as weeks passed, and instead I was trying to add texture to the scene, flesh characters or situations out, and just simply yes, and…-ing my scene partners. The added spontaneity of (mostly) abandoning preloaded ideas most definitely helped, as it took me out of my head and put my mind squarely there with the class' collective conscious. We all started working better as time went on, with the pauses fading and the improv becoming more genuine.

Toward the end of class, I was actively working against myself, veering away from my own thoughts down a new path fueled by that strange fear: the kind of fear that tickles at your heart, the anxiety driven by lack of preparation and enhanced by split-second pressure. It's a wonderful feeling to work around those self-built barriers and come up with something truly spontaneous.

After graduation and a little reflection, the class was mostly what I was expecting: a disparate group of strangers coming together to strengthen a skill and build a bond. The bond would build the skill and vice versa. I learned about myself, my limitations, and my strengths. That's the whole point of a class, to learn something. This class seems more valuable than most, though, in that it teaches people how to deal with the grand uncertainty of life. I can learn math and statistics to try and figure out the world or go to history class to learn of how the past repeats itself, but I can't learn about the future. I can really only learn how to deal with the future as it comes. If I can learn to let go of preloaded ideas of what life can be, live in the moment, and work with what the chaotic spontaneity of the universe throws my way, maybe I’ll yes, and…myself into something extraordinary.

Of course, that could all change after level two of my self-improv-ment at Atlas Improv Co. I’ll tell you all about it next issue.

Photograph by Kelly Kittle

Josh Heath is a Madison-born-and-raised writer. He loves comedy, but “can be a bit much” according to strangers at parties and ex-girlfriends. Read his film work at cutprintfilm.com or his Comedy Picks in Isthmus.

Atlas Improv Co.

609 East Washington Avenue
Madison, WI 53703
(608) 259-9999
atlasimprov.com