Did I find Improv or did Improv find me

I am 30 years old and I am happy to tell you, dear screen reader, that ever since I learned how to play as a kid – I have never stopped. 

Now, this is a story all about how me and the art form of improvisation found each other. This is me exercising the warm friendly feelings of nostalgia and gratitude. I’ve read that they are great ways to spice up the everlasting attempt of making yourself feel better in the midst of not feeling so better on most days. 

In case you’re not in the mood to read a long ass blog post about a personal improv journey, here are the main takeaways upfront:

  1. Nostalgia can make us feel happier, increase our self-confidence, and make us more mindful of the present. (Source)
  2. Gratitude might help reroute the brain from toxic emotional patterns such as envy, regret and depression. (Source)

I will also be using some good old strong, suggestive subheadings in this post. Because sometimes what we need as adults is someone to state things with a bit of false confidence, framing things positively, and thus sparing us some of the work of adulting.

Nostalgia is good for improv

When I was under the age of 10 I used to play with these amazingly realistic yet a bit mismolded plastic animals. Every day the animals wandered as a herd, camels and polar bears, collies and alligators side by side, through the  backyards of neighbours, nearby groves, and especially through every ditch and little stream within a walking distance. At around the age 12 this eclectic zoo was ditched for the more trendier toys such as my little ponies. At 14 they were all boxed away to make way for fantasy books with characters brought to life through the writing and drawing of fanfiction. At 16 it was board games. At 18 it all finally evolved into the group games of drama class. 

It was never called improv, but of course that was what it was. To me it makes sense that a lot of improvisers call it ‘playing in a show’ instead of ‘performing in a show’.

 Another funny memory I want to share for the sake of backstory is something that me and my cousins used to do at every family get together. We would get into whatever adjacent room we had at our disposal and the oldest cousin wrote us up with a premise. With this loose plot in our heads we would re-entered the party as characters and continue to improvise a little play in front of the guests. I remember a very specific performance when I was 8 where I asked to be cast as a golden retriever named Jessica so I wouldn’t have to memorize any lines at all.

I grew up to become an improviser and that oldest cousin grew up to become a theatre director.

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Fast forward to me in youth theatre – because it’s about time to introduce the central crisis of my journey.

When I was doing amateur theatre I finally learned the word improv. I learned the word improv to have an especially bad rep. Everyone would cringe whenever it was mentioned and all feared that one rehearsal in every production that was solely dedicated to it. It was even sometimes a shared class for all levels. A gladiators arena if you will, where most of us never stood up from our audience seats. It was a place for the bullies to take center stage to mock the shy and slow. 

I think this dramatised negative experience, to some extent, still lives on in the minds of some of my friends who hail from the same theatre. And this really makes me sad. It proves that improv can indeed become very traumatising if not properly facilitated.

And while I’m hopeful that things have surely progressed since I left, I do sometimes find myself wondering if maybe I should just double check on that one day. Venture back to my first home of a theatre. With some of that inclusive, encouraging, and fun improv. Because that is what I have found that it can also be.

Gratitude is good for improv

As probably all who find themselves in a long-term committed relationship with improv, I too have received a lot of help from other trailblazers. The more seasoned improvisers who really allowed me to walk on paths already lit. Without whom I would truly not be where I am. So I don’t need no oscar to write a 45 second thank you speech to these group leaders, teachers, and mentors that I feel the need to thank. Ready? Set? Go!

The person who I can thank for setting me up with improv is Jan-Henrik Holmlund. He was the unofficial leader of my first improv team. To him leadership was always more of a skill than a technical role when he lead us thought the stages of discovery with short form games, private short form gigs and finally four seasons of long form plays, always allowing us to evolve and grow at our own phase. The lesson I learned from J-H was to always stay patient.

I believe that the journey of a new improviser shouldn’t be rushed, especially through their very first steps. Everyones journey looks different, but I often remind myself that for me this first phase of simply ‘getting comfortable with scenes’ took around 4 years.

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Another person whose impact deserves an equal amount of thanks is Jenna Teinilä. She selflessly helped me find more opportunities after taking the leap of moving to a bigger and more unknown new city. Through the auditions she pointed me to, I got into the casts of my next two improv teamsThe lesson I learned from Jenna was to always support others.

Improv involves the element of constant collaboration and it is up to us to provide it with a safe, supportive space. From her I learned just how important it is to be generous with this in order for this community to thrive. I believe that sharing our know-how will allow us all to get much further.

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Because I want to complete the rule of threes, and because I know how to do so thanks to him, I’d like to end by thanking Trent Pancy. He has believed in me better than I’ve ever believed in myself and he has done that so many times I can’t even count anymore. He was the first improv teacher who knew how to push me further into my development. When you are at a certain point, you stop needing encouragement and start needing some challenge. And that won’t happen unless you know how to ask for it. The lesson I learned from Trent was to always claim space for myself.

Before I finish I do also want to extend an open ‘thank you’ to all of you who have expanded my horizons in any shape of form and who have provided me with both positive affirmations as well as those notes that made me mad at first, but insightful later.

In the end it’s that big pile, made up of all those little things people have been telling me throughout my journey, that has allowed me to form a positive inner voice when it comes to improv. You all gave me that voice. And that is so important. Never ever skip an opportunity to compliment a fellow improviser.

Other people can provide you with a viewpoint you’re not able to see

I remember one very specific chat I had with my best friend. This took place during the time I was finally studying acting. I asked her what type of actor she thought I would become known as. “What would my cutie mark be?” was the actual phrase used. And I remember how she replied in a way as it was already obvious to all: “Improv. Improv is your angle.”

I remember being so surprised by that answer. No one I knew back then was solely dedicated to improv. If I’d be asked to pinpoin that kind of a moment when you feel the lights go on – that would be my moment. 

The year 2020 (year of hindsight) is gonna mark my 8th year being in love with improv. It became a fork in the road I chose over and over again even when others didn’t.

For sure improv has separated me from a lot of the people I have grown with. But it has also connected me with a lot of the people I really want to keep growing with.

Written by JUTTA TILVIS

Jutta is an improv teacher at YesFinland. She performs regularly on stages throughout Finland as an actor of The Improv Theatre Snorkkeli and around Europe as a member of the travelling improv group Doris Likes Everything. She is also a member of The SIN – Network of international improvisers in Europe.

She believes that improv requires you to be ready to become a lifelong learner.