Lessons from Improv #2: Let Ideas Happen


Here is a brief article by Jack Cheng for 99u within the website network of Bēhance. To check out other resources, learn more about 99u, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

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We like plans. They make us feel comfortable. Yet, improv teaches that we must always remain open to new ideas- — and maybe to scrapping that plan.

“What if it doesn’t make sense?”
“I don’t know how it’s supposed to end.”
“Is it my turn yet?”
“What if I sound like an idiot?”

These are thoughts running through my head as I await my turn. It’s the second of my four weekly ‘Intro to Improv’ classes at the People’s Improv Theater in Manhattan. For one of this evening’s exercises, the 12 of us have arranged ourselves in a familiar circle as the person standing in the middle breaks out into song. She would keep singing until someone else tapped in and performed a new song, and so on. It was a karaoke lightning round, except without the help of music or on-screen lyrics.

The first run-through was a mess. Some were left in the middle repeating bits of chorus and humming unfamiliar verses while the students on the outside stood paralyzed, trying to think of another tune.

Instructor Kimmy Gatewood stopped us. She pointed out that when we each had a different playlist of songs in our heads, we stopped listening. For the music to flow as a team, we had to put aside our preconceived ideas of how events would unfold and open our ears to what was happening in front of us.

Tip: Don’t force ideas by sticking too closely to a predetermined plan. Ideas tend to take on a life of their own. Listen, observe and be ready to abandon one direction to pursue another.

Our second attempt flowed like water. By paying attention to what our fellow actors were singing, we found a common thread to guide our individual song choices. ‘Singing in the Rain’ inspired Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’, which eventually led to ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ and Annie’s ‘Tomorrow.’

In improv you’re never alone. You’re constantly getting new creative fodder, whether it’s the actions of your fellow actors or feedback from the audience. If you have a separate agenda from the rest of the team, it shows. Many times, the best way to make things happen is to get out of the way and let the music write itself.

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Jack Cheng is a freelance ninja who constantly jumps back and forth between words, pixels and code. When he’s not working on odd projects or gleaming life-lessons from classes he signs up for on a whim, he writes about making ideas happen at jackcheng.com.

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