An Ode to Improv


by Imran Iftikhar

Imran Iftikhar (lying on the floor) and Fizza Hasan in an improv scene

I was sitting in a cafe on top of a mountain in china, sipping the most expensive tea in the world. This was the only cafe in the world that made its tea from dragon’s blood. A dragon was slaughtered every time a cup of tea had to be made, after an ornate ritual involving cutting the dragon’s chin hair. The tea was green in color because, of course, that is the color of dragon’s blood. I just sat there, at the cafe, drinking the tea with my pinky sticking out, because its terribly bad manners to have tea at a snooty cafe on top of a mountain in China without your pinky sticking out…You can’t make this stuff up. Well, actually you can, which is exactly what I did that evening. Not only that, I made it up on the spot; I was part of an improv performance at The Farm in Bani Gala.

We were a group of about 12 people, who were given various scenarios and prompts, and we had to come up with scenes and conversations and stories, with the added purpose of making people laugh, all extempore. We were largely able to achieve our goals, but there were times when scenes became dull, and thats when Jim, our moderator and improv instructor, would steer it into a completely new direction.

A couple of days ago, I posted a photo of my performance and captioned it “Improv sets you free.”I wasn’t trying to be all cool and pretentious; the phrase encapsulates exactly what I felt as I stood up there, responding to prompts and ‘gifts’ that I received from my fellow performers and audience members.

Imran Iftikhar with other improvisers; Jim Robinson can be seen in the background.

Being put on the spot, to make up stories and scenes and act them out in front of an audience, might seem like a daunting prospect to some. This is true even for seasoned actors, who might freeze on stage, even with the luxury of a memorized script.

So when I first found out about the improv workshops which would culminate in a public performance, I was perplexed, to say the least. I detest being put on the spot. Sometimes, even when I’m asked the simplest questions, my mind goes blank. I immediately start to worry about how to respond, all the while extremely anxious about being judged on what I say. I’m not able to answer questions like, “What’s up?” or “How are you doing?” or “You look down today. Is everything alright?” immediately, because I feel an immense pressure to give a correct response; anything else I’d say would make me sound like a complete idiot. As a result, my anxiety shoots up and my pulse begins to race. Needless to say, the prospect of participating in an improv workshop terrified me from the beginning. How could I ever make up a story on the spot when a simple greeting could throw me off? I didn’t think I could go ahead with it. But as it turned out, improv provided the very tools to help me overcome this anxiety.

The golden rule of improv is that you have to say ‘yes’ to every stimulus you receive from your scene partner; you cannot say ‘no’. If your fellow performer says to you, “Why are you dressed like a chicken?” you can’t say “I’m not dressed like a chicken.” If you are told that you’re wearing a chicken suit, then you ARE wearing a chicken suit. You have to go with it. You could say something like, “Oh because I was feeling particularly scared today.” You have to be open, accepting and non judgmental. You have to believe that everything your fellow improvisor tells you is the truth. This also means that whatever you say will be accepted, without judgment, as well. This dispelled my main fear.

In improv, there is no one correct path to be followed. Every statement, every action, every exclamation, every fake air guitar solo is correct. This realization took a few practice sessions but, eventually, I knew that I would not be ridiculed, or made to feel inferior, for anything I say or do. This reassurance was empowering; I began to feel confident that I could do anything I wanted. I also knew that I had the same advantages and disadvantages as all those other people performing with me. We were all in the same improv boat. We were all standing there without a clue of what was going to happen next.

All of that being said, improv for me was also like being thrown into the deep end of the pool; I had to sink or swim. As it turned out, being put on the spot was wonderful, because the pressure forced me to express myself in ways that I would never have the courage for otherwise. I HAD to say something – I had no other option. In that moment, I realized that all the insecurities and awkwardness were just in my head. I had the ability to make things up at a moments notice. And the appreciation of the crowd just spurred me on and boosted my confidence even more.

Audience come up to appreciate performers.