Six Things I Learned About Relationships From Improv

Love doesn’t mean having to agree


I just wrote about improv a week ago, but that post was about anxiety / indecision and this one is about love and those two things, not enough of us agree, are entirely different. So they warranted separate posts.

I just started doing improv six weeks ago, and I loved it by the second class (the first being a bit too dicey too tell; I wanted to like it, was pretty sure I liked it, but it was also a bit early to know for sure.) But by the second week, I was definitely hooked, and I just signed up for my second six-week set of sessions.

And here’s what I’ve learned (and loved) about love in improv:

1.) Care About Others

The audience can tell, and so can your partner(s). It just makes for a much better experience — in improv as much as real life. The best scenes have connection.

Even when two characters are fighting, the scene goes a lot better if they fundamentally like one another (the characters, but the actors getting along IRL helps a lot too.) And you can play any character you want if you fundamentally care about them. The audience can tell.

Connection — and relationships — are the number one thing in improv.

And in life.

We get nowhere operating in a vacuum. Everything that means anything involves relationships of some kind.

2.) Trust Others

People always want to summarize improv as “yes, and,” but the connection and rapport with your teammates comes first.

During the first class, all we had to do was go out and talk. We could say anything we want — funny or not — but we had to talk until someone tagged us out, and the whole point of the exercise was to “save” our team members, and trust that someone would “save” us.

And we all did.

3.) Acknowledge — And Then Add (“Yes, and”)

This is the backbone of improv — the “number one rule” (after connection, see above.) “Yes, and” has two parts:

  • “Yes:” whatever your partner says or does, you accept. You run with it. That’s the new reality.
  • “And:” then you add more, and build.

1.) Acknowledge Others’ Realities (“Yes”)

Seems simple enough, but when I heard this phrase years ago, I butchered it. At the time, I tried to use “yes, and” to make a toxic relationship work (i.e., agreeing to everything he said in a fight.) But “yes, and” should never, ever be used in real-life arguments. The whole point of “yes, and” is to build energy, and healthy arguments should instead dissipate and get resolved.

Real-life still includes “yes,” but only in the way it’s actually meant — which isn’t necessarily literal. Rather:

“Yes” simply means you acknowledge what they said and accept it as “real.” It doesn’t mean you have to agree.

“Yes” just means you honor their statement (“okay. I heard that; that’s real”) rather than deny (“that never happened!” or “that doesn’t matter!”) It doesn’t mean you have to like it, or even pretend to.

I learned this the hard way, early on in improv. While playing the girlfriend of an upset boyfriend, I immediately launched into trying to comfort him. Afterwards, our instructor analyzed the characters for the class by saying,

“…and she was obviously totally codependent!! Great job, guys!”

Glass-shattering.

It’s amazing how much we get wrong about relationships.

“Yes” in real life is not “yes, your feelings are hurt and I’m to blame!” It’s more like “okay, your feelings are hurt. I hear you” and then working to unravel and unwind the energy.

(And “yes, and” in improv looks more like, “Okay, sir… but I’m just trying to take your Dunkin Donuts order here.” I trust you see the difference.)

4.) Know how you FEEL! Then know how THEY feel

In the workshop, we did an awesome, deliberate paired exercise where we delivered one line at a time. After one person would say something, their partner would step away and define:

  • What their partner said
  • How their partner said it
  • How it makes them (the individual) feel
  • How they (the character) will use that in the scene

It’s remarkable how often we don’t hear each other’s actual words.

It’s also remarkable how often we misidentify their emotions.

And it’s downright sad when we struggle to accurately identify our own.

Understanding and getting better at all three things makes us so much better — not just in improv, but in relationships and life.

5.) Know What You Want

People don’t realize how important this is — in improv and life. You have to contribute. You need an objective, a motivation, a want. Even “trying to take your order,” from above, works.

What do you want?

As writer Kurt Vonnegut said,

“Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water.”

If all you do is sit there, smile, nod, comfort, or agree, then you’re not really there. If you’re not present or participating, adding your own unique desires, wants, needs, and opinions, then you are passive and not a part of the scene, or real life. And both will steamroll you.

As Heidi Priebe wrote,

“If you fail to show up with a ‘deal,’ there’s a good chance nothing interesting is going to happen… Because bending or conforming to whoever your scene partner wants you to be isn’t interesting. It doesn’t create any tension. It doesn’t get you anywhere.”

You have to add and ask for something of your own. What’s your deal? What do you want?

6.) Energy is an exchange

Our instructor wasn’t “feeling it” our third class. Normally an expressive woman dressed in whimsical textures and colors, she was seated when we walked in, wearing a baseball hat and a fitted athleisure top zipped up to her chin. She’d had a bad day.

She still led the class, but the difference was palpable. And it was a really invaluable insight into the level of energy she normally brings, and just how draining it can be when someone isn’t constantly fueling the fire.

We have to do that for each other sometimes. We have to bring it. We can’t expect one person in any relationship to constantly feed the fire while the other one absorbs it.

It’s boring at best, and draining at worst.

Same as in improv as in life. We have to bring if we want others to bring; we supply half of the driving force.

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