Every Word is a Gift: Lessons From Long-form Improv

Published: Mar 28, 2023  |  

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Illustration by Sarameeya Aree

My coach, John Abbott, says quietly, “Mark, please stop talking.” It’s Monday night, and I’m with my troupe for a Zoom class with our instructor, who draws on 20 years of teaching improv in Chicago theaters. When COVID started, we recruited him to coach us remotely. 

Having access to this level of expertise has been a game-changer for us. He’s exceptionally patient, reminding me, “You don’t need to say everything at the beginning of the scene.” I know, I know. But, even after all this time, he still needs to stop and get me on track.  I naturally narrate, ask questions, or fill empty air with words. As a podcaster and host of several shows, I often fall into this trap. These feel like DNA-level traits that are counterproductive to great improv.

We study long-form improvisational comedy, which differs from what you see on the television show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, which is based on short-form improv’s fast and funny games. Long-form is like a one-act play with no script, starting with a simple suggestion from the audience. The humor comes from everyday life situations. When trying to be funny, we typically fail. But we’re usually hilarious when we’re simply being honest and human. 

On stage, I typically start by looking at my scene partner while seeking an emotion or feeling. Then, I get in touch with how they are making me feel and try to say something indicating I am in touch with my inner self. Emotional connection is the ideal I strive for but only sometimes reach. Which is why I often hear John ask me: “How do you feel about what they just said?” 

You can be open to anything when you walk out onto the stage with nothing

It’s liberating. In improv, we talk about giving gifts to each other. First, getting a suggestion from the audience is a gift. Next, we learn who we are, what we’re doing, or where we are. Then, knowing something simple and not having to conjure it from thin air is a gift. Finally, we walk onto the stage and look at our partner, with only their facial expression, hopefully showing some emotion, a physical affect, hunched shoulders, or a proud stance; we have something to react to.

I am constantly reminded of a line from Hamilton, where Aaron Burr says to the recently landed Alexander, “Talk less. Smile more.” This line embodies John’s teaching, yet for a different reason. Talk less, sure, but smiling more means showing emotion. Being stoic or emotionless causes your partner to have to guess what you’re feeling. If they see me walk onto the stage with a big smile and a bit of a lilt to my walk, they might say, “I haven’t seen you this happy in days. Looks like you got that job!” My smile and physicality gave them an idea. They accepted my happiness and created a reason for me to be happy. So now we both know something about each other and can start exploring what else might be true about our relationship. It’s in this simple back and forth that we build a scene.

Improv training for the past eight years has profoundly impacted how I show up daily. I now tend to look at someone for at least a few beats longer than before, especially when I sit down for a meal or meet them at a social event. I listen more actively because they will inadvertently give me a gift, a bit of detail, something I can react to, accept, then add to. This exemplifies the very foundation of what improv is. It is about being present, flexible, and collaborative. It’s as powerful offstage as it is on the stage.

We create conversations this way, which leads to stronger relationships. 

I’m more aware of interpersonal relationships than ever in this post-COVID world. We’ve stared at the world through a computer window for a few years. Lucky for me, we dedicated many of those hours to strengthening our improv skills. Now that we’re performing again, rehearsing in person, and starting to travel, I have dramatically changed how I interact with people.

It’s as if each encounter is the beginning of a scene. In many senses, it is. Looking at each encounter through the eyes of an improviser has changed how I react to those around me. I immediately find a way to be affected by what they’ve just said. How does it make me feel? On a scale of one to ten, having and showing an emotional reaction in your day-to-day interactions will dramatically alter the rest of the conversation, trust me. 

I consistently find a way to say “yes”—usually not explicitly. More often, the “yes” is an acceptance of what the other person has said; then I watch their face and look for clues that will give me information about their emotional state. I wish someone had told me how important this was when I was twenty. 

Then, based on what they’ve said, I find a way to add some information that moves the conversation along, but just a bit at a time—following the improv rule of “yes, and-ing.” When my scene partner reacted to my happiness, then added the bit about it resulting from a job interview going well, I replied: “Yes, I am looking forward to working with their science team.” This reply affirmed their acknowledgment of the positive outcome of the interview (“yes”), while adding a new bit of information (“and”) about my desire to expand my scientific career. 

Each sentence provides a back-and-forth which adds a bit to the knowledge about our relationship, how we feel and gives us clues about what else might be true in the world we’ve created.

You can see how each sentence, freely given and exchanged, adds to the conversation while the relationship deepens. Each word within the sentence can be viewed as a gift. When you consider how much time and energy you devote to giving physical gifts on special occasions, you can imagine how vibrant your conversations could become if you considered each of your words as a gift to your partner.

The next time you have a chance to interact with a human and not a chatbot, remember these three things as the building blocks to a robust conversation: React emotionally. Accept what they’ve said as the truth, then add something of value to move the relationship forward, one idea at a time.

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