The Healing Power of Improv

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With the Interhall Theatresports Competition on the horizon, I find that now is one of the better times to look back on my background of improvisation (or improv) and reminisce.

I have been in Australia longer than I have been anywhere else in the world, so obviously much of who I am today has been shaped while in this country. When I think specifically of what has made me who I am, improvisation is always one of the first things that springs to mind, because I feel I would be a lesser person if I had never chosen to pursue improv. I would even go so far as to say that I may have been a totally different person – it has coloured that much of my personality.

In 2008 I moved to Australia. As a result of my dad’s military background I had lived in a number of countries previously, and while Australia promised to be a more permanent arrangement, the process of settling was still very unnerving.

It was during my first year in Australia, in Year 6, that my entire cohort was given a lecture on public speaking. I can’t remember much of what was discussed, but I do remember that the lecturer asked for any willing students to come to the stage and speak on any topic of their choosing. Effectively, she was asking us to improvise a speech. I found this a terribly exciting idea, so I immediately put my hand up. Once I was standing in front of the entire year group, however, I choked. I could not think of anything to say, so I ended up asking the audience a silly rhetorical question before shuffling off the stage.

Whilst I have been able to laugh about this in hindsight (the best retelling of the story featured a standing ovation and a spontaneous appearance from John Howard who gave me the key to the city), this experience was utterly devastating for me at the time. For the remainder of the year, and for some time after, I was regularly teased about my slip-up. Considering that this was my first year in a new country, where I was still desperately trying to find my feet, this had a profoundly negative effect on my confidence.

Suddenly, I became a very shy and introverted person, constantly concerned about other people’s opinions of me. I would take every personal criticism extremely seriously, regardless of how minor or light-hearted it was. In those early days, my brilliant master plan was to effectively rewrite my entire personality to better please those I had somehow upset. So when I entered senior school, I went in with a ridiculous mission statement: I wanted nobody to have a single negative opinion about me.

This was, of course, a silly plan – it’s impossible to please everybody, but I refused to accept this. The result was unsurprising; I became so concerned with what others thought of me that I never exhibited much of my own personality. I was so frightened of making any mistakes that I likely came across as a nice, likely forgettable character. I hardly spoke to anyone, and the prospect of approaching someone who wasn’t an immediate friend of mine was terrifying.

It is at this point that improv came in.

I had always been passionate about drama, so I was quick to sign up, but from that moment on, it would  hold a newfound significance in my life. Improv, by nature, encourages people to take risks. Playing it too safely can produce tedious performances, and it is often the bold, daring and brave decisions that stick in people’s minds the most. Improv was initially an extremely intimidating prospect to me – not only would I have to operate without a script, leaving me with little more than my wits and instincts, but I was also expected to be genuinely entertaining to people. Since my last experience on stage in front of my peers had resulted in me shying away, I initially struggled, afraid that I’d be ridiculed again. Try making someone laugh when you’re vulnerable and introverted – it was a tough gig.

Gradually, however, with each passing year, I found myself growing in confidence. Improv classes effectively became a sanctuary for me – one where I could express myself without restraint. It was a release that I had in no other area of my life. The most important thing was that it provided a safe environment in which I was free from the judgment of the usual sceptical eye. I was not condemned for trying to do something bold and risky, regardless of how bizarre and outlandish it may have been. Even when I made mistakes, I found none of the scathing criticisms I had programmed myself to expect.

In fact, I was encouraged and praised for trying to think creatively and for coming up with less conventional solutions. This was extraordinarily reviving and liberating, and I was awakened to the limitless potential of improv and the endless stream of invention that it could lead to. I met people who inspired me with the vibrancy of their personalities, while the kindness of my mentors gave me the courage to go to places I had never dreamed I would venture into.

I like to think it was around Year 10 that I really began to come into my own. By this point, I was a decent drama student, and the confidence that I had steadily forged allowed me to bring much more of myself to my performances, which also allowed my own long-hidden quirks to shine through in their own way. It was by this point that I was no longer intimidated to perform in front of my peers. In fact, it was something I began to really enjoy.

My journey reached a new high when I was invited to join an improv ensemble that played three shows at the Sydney Comedy Festival in 2014. It was here that I performed alongside talents who I would have never dreamed of working with in previous years, and for the first time I became consciously aware that, just by being myself on stage, people were laughing with me and not at me.

That was such an extraordinary realisation.

For me, improv has been more than just an outlet to rebuild confidence, or a hobby, it has been a journey of renewal, and perhaps most importantly, rediscovery.