How Improv Brings Back the Joy of Play

Read this reflective narrative about improv acting.

For Clarissa, the improv stage is a space for opportunity and connection. It’s more than a hobby — it’s a way to reclaim the act of “playing” that consumed so much of our childhood. She shares why engaging in these unscripted moments fills an important need in her life.

Growing up, it was easy for me to find friends and neighbors and cousins to play with. There was always a made-up adventure awaiting or a living room fort to create or a new playground to explore. But growing into adulthood, it seems, has brought me further from “playing” in my day-to-day life.

My time is taken up by my job, family and friends, and moments of self-care and exercise. While these are all needed and good things, I still desire that time for “play” — for engaging with others in a game, just for the sake of enjoyment and fun. That’s why I squeeze in time for improv comedy. And in that space on that stage, let me tell you, magic comes to life. 

There are tenets to guide improv, but there really aren’t many rules to building a good scene. An audience member shouts out a suggestion, and in a matter of moments, you are transported from a hard seat in an improv venue to a farm, a spaceship, or someone’s imaginary living room. Scenes appear and lines are spoken. It’s all unscripted. It looks seamless and easy — and in some ways, it is. 

But the trick, or perhaps the game of it all, is to lean into the “yes, and.” You, as a player, must commit to the scenes and the lines that are spoken by other players on stage. When you build on each other’s ideas, the scene can intensify. It can ebb and flow. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s serious. Improv comedy at its best is watching players and characters come up with ideas and follow and build together.

Think back to the days when you were playing with imaginary friends or even real ones — and you built something from nothing, that you didn’t know existed. You kept building and exploring. Time felt like it went on for an eternity as magic appeared before your eyes. It’s easy to get lost in those moments when there are no limits. No deadlines. No fences to box you in. That’s what happens on stage when improv players go back and forth with dialogue.

I remember losing myself in the scenes when I was performing improv at a more regular cadence. I would find a character that seemed to fit — and just played. I remember being a tiny introspective lobster with another person in a scene. We looked at the night sky and tried to catch lightning bugs, dreaming about possibilities. At the end, I reached out to grab the other character’s “claw” as an opportunity of connection. I remember another scene where I played a quiet high school janitor who listened to the students who scurried about around me, caught up in their own stories and lives. Other times, scenes end up with me crawling on the ground or even jumping around the stage. 

Finding joy in the unknown and unscripted heals my soul. A lot in my life is very scripted — work, my child’s school schedule, family obligations. That’s not to say those are not joyful in their context. But stepping on stage with a bit of hesitation and some fear is uniquely brave. 

One of the things I have learned to love about playing with improv teams is that there is a fierce trust you have in each other. It’s a real thing to go around before lights go up and pat all your teammates on their back, as if to say, “I got your back out there.” We support each other — knowing that what happens on stage may be tremendous, or may be a flop. Whether you play the best show of your life or not, the process of working together to build the unknown is an exciting creative endeavor.

Playing as a child filled my younger years with a sense of purpose. Whether it was quietly playing alone or organizing the neighborhood kids in a game of wiffle ball, it felt genuine and good to fill my days with play. I can remember seeing summer vacation stretched out in front of me and wanting to spend every single second playing. The adventure didn’t always lead somewhere spectacular, but the desire to discover filled my soul.

In these darkening days of winter, I encourage you to find something that ignites the spark within you to create and reclaim the gift of play. It could be watching live theater or even an improv comedy show. Or perhaps it’s painting just for the joy of mixing colors. Maybe it’s singing loudly on your walk to work. Whatever it is, find a way to create just to create, to play just to play, and savor the child-like joy that comes with it.

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