On The Margins, Between the Lines: Learning to fail through improv

Jamie Soloman, Stanford University

This weekend was the Stanford Improvisors’ (SImps) 20th reunion. I spent the whole weekend doing improv with alumni, getting to know them and hearing them reflect on the role that improv and the ideas behind it have had on their lives. As one alumnus said, “Improv is so much more than improv,” and it has truly affected many of the alumni’s lives in more profound ways than simply being the focus of a group they were part of in college.

In many ways, improv is a philosophy for life, and the tenets behind it can be paradigm-shifting for students in an environment like Stanford’s.

Living at Stanford can be taxing at times because everyone is always running around, there’s so much to do and everyone you know is amazing at everything. Because of this, joining our improv group has been one of the best things that has happened to me at Stanford. It has given me an all-too-brief respite from the Stanford grind — a few days each week in which anything and everything I do is wonderful, there are no standards to measure up to and I get to both fail and embrace my failure. The lessons I’ve learned in Drama 103 and with the SImps can’t help but seep into the rest of my life.

Improv teachers from Stanford deliberately set up environments with as little pressure as possible, which is such a gift to students. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to and you can do no wrong. In practice and class, everyone will sit on one side of the room and a few kids will stand up at a time in front of the group and improvise scenes or play games. If I’m having a bad day and don’t feel like doing anything, I have the ability just to sit on the floor and watch everyone for two hours and laugh.

However, I also know that if I decide to get up and be in a scene, I have full permission to be terrible. Without this understanding, improvisation doesn’t work. When doing improv, you can’t try to be funny and you can’t try to be good. Often, the harder you try to be funny, the less interesting the audience finds your performance. The comedy comes much more frequently from the surprising or bizarre moments, or when there’s a strong grain of truth. Lines delivered to make the audience laugh will often fall flat. Pressuring yourself to try to make a good scene is also almost guaranteed to backfire — doing so inflicts a form of paralysis. If you can only do things that you know ahead of time will be good, then you cease to do anything, and a scene immediately dies.

The only thing to do is embrace the fact that you will fail. Every time you stand up to perform, you accept the possibility that you may be awful, and that it is perfectly okay. You don’t try to be the best improviser; you just try to be average (which, for a Stanford student, is a mind-boggling point of view to take). All you have to do is just show up and do something. Just be present in the scene, listen to others and react. There are no lines to forget. There are no critics in the audience. You can’t do anything wrong because to do good improv, you have to do bad improv.

And at Stanford, this is the most refreshing mindset. It’s one of the things that has kept me sane in the past year. It’s a space where I don’t have to do anything well. I just have to do it, and that alone is enough to bring me joy. So much of the rest of my time is spent stressing out about trying to write a great paper, impressing my professor (especially salient because I’m at the point where letters of recommendation become important) or keeping my grades at the high standard I’ve set for myself. I want to excel in everything else at Stanford. In fact, there have been numerous times where I’ve looked around at all my friends and acquaintances and thought about how much of an underachiever I seem to be — considering that everyone here seemingly spends all their time making the impossible happen. But then I go to SImps practice and am reminded that it’s okay to be average. All I need to do is just show up. I can both look forward to failure and celebrate it.

Jamie didn’t improvise this column. She spent a lot of time writing it! You should reward her with an email to jamiesol “at” stanford “dot” edu.

------- Thank you for your reflections about the value of Improv as it applies to life.  Please continue to share your thoughts with us.

Reprinted with permission by Jamie from The Stanford Daily.