Performing improv comedy may seem scary, but many aspects of it actually play to introverts’ strengths.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve practiced/taught/performed improv with thousands of people, and it may surprise you when I say that the majority of those people consider themselves introverts. I’m one of them.
In grade school, I was the shy kid that mostly kept to myself, though people often sought advice from me on life, boys, or Spanish homework. (I had advice about boyfriends, but no boyfriend. The irony.) I wasn’t the star of school plays growing up, yet I once made the cut to be in the chorus (i.e., for anyone who “wants” to be in the play, but doesn’t get an actual role) in a middle school play I don’t even remember the name of.
I aspired to be confident, seen, the life of the party. I attempted to be less shy and the star of the show. I tried out for that play and attended a talent scout event in high school. I volunteered to speak in class. I took voice lessons. My breakthrough performance probably was in the 10th grade, when I sang and performed a rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” with lyrics about the 1857 Dred Scott decision for my history/literature class (if anyone has a recording of that on a VHS somewhere, please, please share!). I still mix up the lyrics sometimes during karaoke!
Regardless of all the attempts, I found so much solace and restoration in my journal. Every day, I’d retreat home to my room, my gel pens, and blank pages, spilling whatever was inside me onto the pages. Those moments alone, with myself and a blank page, reenergized my introvert soul.
I’m still the person at a party who finds one person to connect with and, together, share our life stories. Small talk exhausts me. Or, I’m hiding out in the bathroom between meeting people, so that I can re-energize, like football players jumping in a huddle before going onto the field. Except, no huddle for me. That would kind of defeat the purpose. (By the way, both Oprah and Amy Schumer are introverts and hide in the bathroom at parties, too!)
An Introvert Discovering Improv Comedy
When I first stepped into an improv comedy class over 10 years ago, I wasn’t as intimidated as you might think. I immediately felt a sense of peace, calm, and confidence. Improv was magic for my introversion.
The whole idea of trying improv could’ve been terrifying (and you may still think the concept’s terrifying). What if I say something dumb? What if I’m not funny? What if I didn’t know what to say? But those fears didn’t enter my mind because I knew the fundamental principle of improv, “YES, AND” makes it so that whatever you do (or don’t do) is more than OK. Everything is acknowledged and accepted (saying “yes”) and supported, built on, and added onto in order to create the improv scene (saying “and”).
Practicing improv enabled me to broaden my social skills. I tapped into and practiced the qualities in me that were more “extroverted,” while still honoring my introverted superpowers. I’m what you’d call an “extroverted” introvert.
One of the most common questions companies ask me when considering hiring my company, Improve, to “improv’e” with their teams, is “There are a lot of shy, introverted people on our team. Will this work for them?” My response always starts with a smile, because of the frequency of this question, and because it has become my favorite question to answer. The answer is unexpected (which, in comedy, we love the unexpected).
“Yes, and” they will love it more than anyone else. “Yes, and” is that improv principle aforementioned which involves building on each others’ ideas. In other words, you can’t do anything wrong. Everything is helping us move the scene forward. Below, I get into why introverts (like me) love improv so much and how they can benefit from doing improv.
5 Ways Improv Can Benefit Introverts
1. Improv can inspire you to express yourself, your full self.
Improv gives us a chance to explore and share different parts of ourselves that we don’t often show to others. For instance, if you tend to be quiet and soft-spoken, you can try being loud and angry. It’s freeing to play different roles because we as humans are multifaceted, and in the “real” world, we don’t always show all these different sides of ourselves.
We tend to play a role at work. We may succumb to what we believe others expect from us. But we are more than the boxes we sit in and put others in. With improv, we break out of the boxes and start to see ourselves and our colleagues as more than just what we assume about ourselves/them every day. We get to try out new ways of showing up, witness how others react, and free ourselves of any ruts we’re stuck in or old patterns of behavior that haven’t led us to new growth.
One of my favorite stories to share is an improv student who showed up on day one as a “shy, introverted engineer.” He struggled to keep a conversation and could barely make eye contact with anything but my shoes. By the end of the 8-week class, he looked at people when he talked. He smiled. He even started going to dance clubs and asking people to dance. Improv helped him express previously buried parts of himself. He tried out new behaviors during improv, so he could expand his character range in his life, and discover new and improved ways to be.
Improv provides us with an opportunity to refine our skills and to learn and practice choosing how we want to show up. When we start to practice “yes, and” thinking (and reduce our “this OR that” thinking), we open ourselves to growth and possibility within ourselves, our relationships, and the world.
2. Improv favors the imagination — and introverts have rich imaginations.
Introverts tend to have rich imaginations and improv is kind to those great at building imaginary stories. I don’t know about you other introverts, but my imagination has been blossoming ever since I was a young child playing imaginary stories with my toy dogs and horses (Puppy In My Pocket and Breyer horses, anyone?).
My imagination is still rich with images, stories, and ideas — and improv is a great outlet for “playing pretend” just like what I so enjoyed when I was a child. There are no rules, no script, no bounds to creativity, and that, as an introvert, is very satisfying. And a great way to keep building that imagination and creativity muscle I started honing as a kid.
3. It’s safe to be social; it can actually reduce your stress and anxiety.
Improv is the most psychologically safe environment, I think, one can find today. Which is funny for me to think about because so many people are terrified to try improv. Improv is literally the only place in the world where anything you say, do, think, or don’t say, do, think, is OK. In fact, it’s more than OK, it’s celebrated.
Imagine an improv scene during which you stumble on your words. You freeze. You don’t know what to say. Outside of improv, that might make your palms sweat and knees shake, but in improv, that is actually great! It tells us something about your improvised character and we can use it to build the scene.
You see, everything is a gift in improv. It’s the most stress- and anxiety-free I ever feel. The “rules” of improv (say “yes, and,” take everything as a gift, play the scene you’re in, and if it feels weird, do it!) are supportive and forgiving, so there’s no need to worry. It’s safe to be however you are. However you are and whoever you are is exactly as it should be.
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4. Improv turns your internal life into external fun.
As I mentioned previously, improv favors the imagination and it provides a venue to turn our internal ideas, reflections, and musings into an external world. Whatever we’re thinking, we get to say and share to inspire an improv scene. For instance, I may say, “I’m feeling so bewildered!” and a scene partner could respond, “Yes, of course you are! You’ve never seen a goat wearing a sweater before!” It’s a venue for sharing feelings and ideas with minimal judgment and fear.
Research shows that, when you improvise, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (i.e., your inner critic) in your brain decreases in activity and the medial prefrontal cortex (i.e., language and creativity) increases. So we’re able to share our creative ideas more freely than we do in the “real world.”
5. It’s fun! (You’ll have to try it and see for yourself.)
The benefits of laughter are widely researched. Laughing is good for us. Laughter releases endorphins, chemicals in our brain that make us feel good, so anyone who does improv feels pretty great. It’s why improv can be kind of addictive (and also often referred to as a “cult”). It’s a healthy addiction, I promise.
With improv, we are in an adult playground for being, imagining, creating. As children, we naturally did all these things (played pretend, made up stories, colored outside the lines) and we had so much fun! Improv is our adult playground for playing pretend, making up stories, and trying new things.
I’m happy to report that I can be shy and confident, excited and nervous, introverted and outgoing. With improv, you can, too.
Say “yes, and” “improv’e” with me and Improve every week during our live virtual sessions. You can sign up at sayyesand.chooseimprove.com.