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Best-Kept Secret to Creating Social Change: Improv

I hold the secret to the fastest, widest ranging, longest lasting, and certainly most fun path to positive, global social change: Everyone in...

I hold the secret to the fastest, widest ranging, longest lasting, and certainly most fun path to positive, global social change: Everyone in the world should take an improv class. I have never been more serious about anything in my life. If more people improvised, there would be no war.

Improvisation is the art of making it up. Winging it. Often used in theatre, it is the creation of a scene or tiny play that arises from a suggestion from the audience, a tiny play for which the script is made up on the spot. If all you can think about right now is “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” then please allow me to elaborate.

In order to be good at improv, you must adhere to a few pretty stringent rules. You must listen to others. You must agree with what’s going on, and respect those you’re working with. You must: Get along. Work together. Be fearless. Show up with energy. Be willing to look silly and even fail. Your job, while improvising, is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and make them look good, and more than anything you must learn to obey the precept: Don’t be a dick.

As a result, a completely delightful by-product of improv is a set of unbelievably great skills for citizenship. Those who improvise become nicer, more informed, more interesting, more interested people.

Improv makes you a better person.

Improv helps you let go of preconceived notions, and all the expectations, which will never be met, that only lead to disappointment and bitterness. Things on the stage change so quickly, and you must, by rule, agree and get on board to make things work. As a result, you learn that, on stage and off, you already have everything you need to solve any problem—which is freeing: You emerge from a situation in which you were wholly unprepared and leave feeling wholly empowered. You worked together and used what you had on hand to create a different reality. There is, therefore, no failure.

I lied, just then.

There is failure in improv. A ton of it. And that is perhaps the biggest and best learning improv has to offer for social change makers. An enormous percentage of what gets improvised—like 90%— is awful. It’s shit. It should never be talked about or even thought about again. What did you expect? You’re making it up.

But what improv teaches you is that it is okay (in fact, awesome) to fail boldly—to make big, sweeping and courageous decisions on the fly. And that if you do fail (which you TOTALLY will, a lot) you can always just get up, dust yourself off, get another suggestion from the audience, and try again. You are no longer responsible for having the perfect answer right away, but instead are empowered to know that armed with nothing more than your fellow participants, energy in the direction of the common good, and an open heart, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished.

Improv removes the need to be right all the time. Improv frees one to say, “I don’t know.” And improv takes the focus off you as an individual, and places it on the group, and the common good.

Full disclosure: There is a down side. Improv will make you realize how awful we humans are to one another. It will point that out to you every time someone begins speaking while someone else is already speaking, and make vivid who in your life is or is not listening. You will see the fear-driven, selfish, self-aggrandizing motivations behind what everyone is saying and doing as they interrupt one another. Once you are exposed to improv, Thanksgiving dinner with your family will become more unbearable than it has ever been.

I am an actor. I make my living improvising. But improvisation’s beneficial impacts can and will help anyone, in any profession, of any age, in any circumstance. Seriously. We’ve taught this to prisoners – prisoners in prison – and they have raved about the good it’s done in their lives. Surely it can help you too.

Go become a better person. Go take an improv class.

And please, think of me on Thanksgiving.

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