I am sometimes asked “How long does it take to become a good improviser?”
Getting to be a good improviser can take a short time, somewhere between a year or two. For some people it is a much longer journey. It’s like learning to speak a foreign language, we all process differently. Improv beginners start by focusing on listening, “yes, &ing”, thinking about what are the parts of a good scene. At some point in time, they don't have to think so hard about what to do. They get a certain amount of time practicing and they start to improvise easier, thinking less, playing more, that is when they start on the journey to improv joy. Just like when someone learns to speak a foreign language.
Learning the “rules”, the forms, “yes, &ing”, etc. of improv is a lot to manage when people first start out. When people learn a new language it is the same way. Vocabulary, verbs, adjectives is how everyone starts out and then people progress to first person, present tense, imperfect subjunctive endings (which are much harder to think about and explain, than to do). At some point, one stops looking for words and starts looking at how to manipulate them to make sense in sentences. Holding on to rules and the hows and whys in improv, at a certain point, no longer helps anyone. Trying to figure out the “right” move slows players down and makes the scene crash. That being said, improvisers don’t have to be “fast thinkers” to be good. Thinking fast is a misnomer, improvisers have to be System 1 thinkers.
Daniel KahnemanIn his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” talks about two different systems of thinking, System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast and easy. For example, 2 × 2 = , you came up with the number 4 before reading any further. Let's just call this thinking fast or System 1 thinking. Really, what it is, is having something so ingrained that it becomes reflexive.
Quickly, what is 124 × 27. This is harder, people have to think about it and process it with little tricks. This is an example of System 2 thinking. When most people start improv classes, or a language, or a new instrument they are System 2 thinking. Overwhelmed by all of the different variables. Calculating which choice would be best to make. Wanting to control their body and be right. Examining their options, and then finally acting upon what they feel is the best solution. This type of thinking is the same thinking that we use when speaking a new foreign language, it makes communication labored. Think of System 2 like learning an instrument, at first it makes us look at the fingering and play the instrument slowly. Processing all the moves and thinking about what one is doing when first learning to improvise is natural, but can feel unnatural and not yield the results hoped for. New improvisers can hit a lot of sour notes.
After playing for a while, experienced improvisers start to get comfortable with the variables of being on stage. Really, they start to System 1 think on stage when listening, “yes anding” and making bold choices in the present moment becomes second nature. Pausing to think about what to do next is not necessary, instead experienced improvisers can be present and have fun. Going through hundreds or thousands of reps on stage and in classes has taught them and moved a lot of that System 2 thinking into System 1 processing.
How long does it take for someone to move from a System 2 player to a System 1 player? That depends on the player (thier personality), the reps (how intentional they play and rehearse), the amount and quality of feedback received, if the teaching methodology connects to a players learning style. One thing for sure is, it does take some time, just like learning an instrument or a new language.
At some point, it is also a process of letting go and trusting that the player can do it. Understanding a language doesn’t make one fluent, practicing it and failing and learning in conversation makes people more fluent. The same is true in improvising. At some point every good player has to leap off the cliff and be ready to screw up and laugh about it.
At the Bovine Metropolis we believe that improv should always be fun and easy. What this means is moving players from being a System 2 player to System 1 player as gently and quickly as possible. When players think and process less, they have more fun and so does the audience. It takes time and intention to make “yes, &” part of muscle memory, but it happens everyday.
To become a "good" improviser, take classes, perform with a coached group, take notes, stretch yourself, make mistakes on stage and figure out what they were afterward with your team. At some point you are just going to have to trust yourself and stop thinking about it and know that you can move the scene forward and “yes, &” like it’s second nature to you.
It is a journey, not a destination. Once you learn a new language, you can forget it, if you don't practice it. Remember, even masters take classes.
Speaking of which, on March 5th, 2019 I am starting a Level 6 class that focuses on embodied reps and starting right and being present more than thinking about the rules. If you already have a vocabulary and want to start speaking the language of improv, this class could be a perfect fit for you. Sign up here. Let’s get and keep you fluent in improv!