Zip Zap Zop: Improv Level A at The Second City
I started taking classes at The Second City Training Center in January this year. I was only able to complete Level A before the world shut down because of COVID-19.
It was a great experience and I was looking forward to more classes, but that wasn't in the cards for the past few months.
Now that Chicago is slowly opening up again, I've started hanging out with my improv friends. It made me realize I should document my experience in Level A before I start my next class.
In December I bought tickets to a performance of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. Being Chicago, this was an alcoholic-fueled production called The Drunken Seagull. My tickets were for a show in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. Most of the stage cast was out of town for the holidays so we got to see some improv instead.
Improv is a Chicago tradition with The Second City and iO theatres churning out talent we see on shows such as Saturday Night Live. I've been to a fair amount of improv, but this was the first time I had this particular feeling: I thought I could do better than what I was seeing on stage.
In 2017, I started speaking at meetups and conferences to improve my communication skills and to increase my knowledge about specific topics. Like everybody else, I was nervous at first and I dreaded getting in front of a large group. These feelings have since gone away and now I look forward to getting up on stage and performing in front of an audience.
Improv is thinking about funny things to say in front of a group of people. How hard could it be?
Very. The answer I soon learned was very. Improv is extremely difficult to do well.
After some research, I signed up for improv classes at The Second City. Was debating studying at the iO Theatre, but The Harold format is intimidating. I had no previous theatre experience and wanted a beginner-friendly option.
Signed up for Level A on Saturday mornings. Wasn't sure what I wanted to get out of classes, but I knew that performing would make me a better speaker.
The first few weeks of class were difficult.
Our instructor, Nick, started each class talking about what we were going to learn. We spent the rest of the class playing different improv games to warm up, practice the thing we were going to learn, and start getting comfortable doing strange things in front of people you don't know that well.
Some of my favourite exercises were:
- Zip Zap Zop
- walking around the room with a persona, looking people in the eye, and acknowledging them in character
- entering the center of a circle and ranting about whatever you want for 10-15 seconds
We also spent a lot of time doing object work and practicing the art of Yes, and... As the weeks went on, we started putting together the things we learned and started doing scene work in small groups.
The whole point to improv is to take what others have built and add onto it. If you are part of a well-tuned ensemble, the sum of all the performances is funnier than what one person can do as the center of the show. Working with my classmates in situations that are out of my comfort zone was a useful exercise.
There were one or two timess where I completely froze. I was on the spot and couldn't think of what to say. It was no big deal. Nick was supportive and my classmates wanted me to succeed. It's about how you learn and react to situations; that's what is important.
A lot of what I learned in class was about not dwelling on my mistakes.
Attending improv classes has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. It has taught me many things, but most importantly it has helped me become more present in situations and allowed me to be easier on myself.
Stop judging yourself. I know it's hard. The reality is that nobody really cares THAT MUCH about what you do; they have their own problems to worry about.
Commit to ideas. Commit to characters. In whatever you do, commit 100%. Don't let that fear of somebody's opinion hold you back from doing the thing you want to do.