Can Improv Make You a Better Person?

Improv extraordinaire Will Naameh takes on our latest Comedians on Ethics column

Feature by Will Naameh | 11 Oct 2017
  • Will Naameh

There's an improv scene galvanising Edinburgh right now with the latest night Spontaneous Potter – inspired by a certain Boy Wizard – set to be as popular as the other monthly unscripted gigs. One of the key players is Will Naameh, who pens this month's Comedians on Ethics column. Can embracing the philosophy of improv also lead to a happier and healthier outlook?

I am standing in the shadows with five people I've never met before. We all speak different first languages and we're about to perform an improvised show. Due to the language barrier, we're without words and can't all understand the audience to take one of their suggestions. Piano music starts playing, the lights come up. The crowd look at an empty stage. Heart pounding, my brain screams “STOP BEING SCARED. MAKE A CHOICE”.

My feet sprint me onstage, and, for lack of a better idea, I start waving my arms in a big circle.

Without pausing to think, the others have joined in and it makes my choice of waving my arms in a big circle look like a genius move. Before long we've built a rocket out of thin air.

The premise sounds like a nightmarish fever dream. It was the third night of the Sweden International Improv Festival. For the uninitiated, improv is the art of performing scenes, theatrical or comedic, with absolutely no script. The joyous way in which five complete strangers supported my lame choice may demonstrate why doing improv can make you a better person. In my thirteen years of improvising, I've heard one mantra repeated constantly: improv rules are life rules.

Improv teaches you how to 'fail'. Indeed, failure is an inherent, unavoidable part of improv. You'd think throwing yourself into an environment where failure is inevitable would be stressful. But it teaches you to turn failures into opportunities. I recall performing in an improvised James Bond show once. Bond wound up with a monkey companion for the entire show, purely due to me stumbling over a name, making Miss Moneypenny sound rather more simian. Instead of mocking or ignoring this verbal blunder as a failure, my fellow improvisers embraced it as a gift. This attitude transfers into life – the best improvisers I know become more positive, less anxious, and happier people. They are comfortable with failing. And there's an incredible freedom to that – they know that failure is just a signpost to the next good thing.

Secondly, improv forces you to listen. You have to be as prepared to contribute your own idea as you are to immediately throw that idea away and explore someone else's. Compare these two scenes:

"Welcome to my ice cream shop."
"Hello, yes, I'd like one scoop of vanilla in a cone please."


"Welcome to my ice cream shop."
"Arr, 'tis good to be the captain of this pirate ship."

One of those scenes is going to be fundamentally easier to perform, and to watch. This skill of active listening, responding, and building on what the other person is saying, is the principle behind joyful collaboration. It's also how five people help build a rocket from one person waving their arms. Whether it is a transaction in a supermarket, a conversation with friends or participating in a board room meeting, it's possible to make people feel valued when listening and throwing away your own idea while adding to theirs. As in improv, as in life.

Finally, improv teaches empathy and emotional intelligence. Compelling scenes always have one key ingredient: emotion. I've seen heartbreaking improv shows that have made entire audiences weep. The playfulness and honesty that comes from improvising breeds emotional awareness and connection. I've made closer friendships from one emotionally-charged improv show than I have from years of sharing a flat with people.

And again, this is true for life: the best improvisers I know are all kind, caring and compassionate people. Emotional intelligence is undoubtedly learned onstage. Improv is now often used as an applied training tool for teachers, conflict managers, and even therapists. Because leading with emotional honesty – onstage and offstage – creates empathy and trust.

So does doing improv inherently make you a better person? No. That would be silly. But its core principles of embracing failure, listening and responding, and emotional awareness, are all invaluable life skills. They provide a better outcome to standing alone and furiously waving your arms.

Follow @WillNaameh on Twitter

Men with Coconuts, Scottish Storytelling Centre, 14 Oct, 8pm, £6/£8
Spontaneous Potter, Monkey Barrel Comedy Club, 5 Oct, 8.30pm, £5
Spontaneous Sherlock, Monkey Barrel Comedy Club, 12 & 26 Oct, 8.30pm, £5
TBC Improv, Monkey Barrel Comedy Club, Sundays, 7.30pm, £5