Performer Justen Mann is clear about the impact that improv has had on his life: “(it) has helped me as a person more than any single thing I have ever done.” This is a pretty strong statement considering the practice of theatrical improvisation involves things like making nonsensical noises and pretending to be inanimate objects. But it seems that improvisational techniques can have a huge positive effect on self-confidence, social skills and interpersonal relationships. The title above, “Improv Your Image,” is no typo. “Improv-ing” your image is a way to transform your self-image through theater games.
Changing Your Act
Maintaining a positive perception of yourself is a significant component of feeling attractive, accepted and connected to others, but not everyone naturally feels like they belong when faced with new social situations. Consider, for instance, the inner narrative that goes on inside your own head each time you’re in an unfamiliar situation. Is it a positive story? Or a negative one filled with criticism and doubt? (“I won’t know what to say” or “Everyone else belongs here but me” or “I should have had a quicker response.”) In a room full of new faces, do you tend to feel excluded? Do you find it difficult to approach a group of people who are already deep in conversation? If so, chances are that it is your inner critic who makes you feel this way. Your self-image may need some work and improv is not only an effective method, but also a fun pastime.
Jessie Shternshus, owner of the Improv Effect, an organization that specializes in using improv principles for corporate training purposes explains that, “Improv teaches you how to gag your inner critic. It sets up an environment where people are non-judgmental and mistakes are gifts. This gives improvisers the confidence to be creative and speak their minds.” Well-trained improvisers, according to Shternshus, “know how to use humor to break down the barriers that are there. (They) know when to talk and when to listen.”
Improv to Improve
According to Sean Ely, a performer with The Improv Effect, “When you have the true ability to ‘perform’ in any situation, whether it is on stage, in your office or simply while having a solid conversation with another person, you’re without a doubt the best version of yourself. Improvisation exercises and classes with The Improv Effect have allowed me to feel the most confident I’ve ever been. I can walk into any scenario and know I’ll present myself well, with my head up, always making eye contact with whomever I’m speaking.” He says that when you master the art of improv, “Not only do you learn to improve your self-image, but also how to take constructive criticism in the correct way and modify something to become even more confident.”
The positive effects of improv can extend to your professional life too. According to Jim Murphy, spine sales consultant by day and improv player by night, “The principles of improv align well with the most meaningful skills in sales jobs: focusing and listening intently.” After Murphy began practicing and performing improv, he found that he served his clients better because he was a better listener. Murphy said, “I find myself catching the smallest of hints unveiling my customer’s needs. In the past, I had it all wrong — I couldn’t wait to tell a potential customer how great what I had was and why they needed it.”
One of the most basic tenets students learn in an improv class is the idea of “yes, and?” This means that the actors embrace what the other players offer and then add to it. In the real world this could be the difference between a good first date and a bad one; rather than struggling to pull the conversation back to your original agenda; you can follow the thread of dialogue to an organic place and discover new things about the other person. Mann, who also runs a successful business, says that, “The simple art of ‘yes, and?’ has transformed my life for the better. It’s allowed for new employment opportunities and, more importantly, new friendships and contacts. I can’t imagine where I would be without improv.”