The Transformative Power of Improv


Written by Alice Sanders
20 Monday 20th November 2017


What does comedy improvisation have in common with CrossFit, Oxbridge, and Veganism? If you know someone who’s done it, they will definitely have told you about it. The reason is that improv – that’s what the insiders call it – is a hobby that will change you. In fact, improv is more like a cult than a hobby; there are levels that cost money and everyone who does it is obsessed with it.

Why is improv comedy becoming so popular? The London improv scene is thriving. There are several successful improv schools you can train at, all with slightly different styles or focus. You can go and see an improv show every night of the week. There is everything from the more standard premise based sketch-like improv, to narrative shows in the style of Jane Austen or Twin Peaks, musical improv, drag improv, actors who’ve learned their lines of a famous play, working with improvisers who haven’t.

I took up improv after a particularly difficult time. The twenty-ninth year of my life was a year in which my younger brother and ex-boyfriend were both diagnosed with cancer, and I had a particularly messy relationship and break up. In the approach to turning thirty I found myself at a very low ebb. I wasn’t happy or satisfied with what I was doing with my life. Improv, I thought might be a good way to get creative again, and explore the possibility of performing without too much pressure. So, with a bad hangover and a desperation to change something in my life, I said my first in a long series of yeses and signed up to an improv class. Little did I know what a huge effect it would have on me.


I wanted to hear more about the power of improv, so I talked to Lola Rose Maxwell, a 30 year-old comedian from London, who took up improv because her older brother persuaded her to. She noticed that her improv skills were immediately beneficial in the workplace, “it’s really helpful for working with people.” One of the key tenants of improv is that you do it in a team; one of the ways that you are taught to ease your own nerves as well as function as a group is to focus on other people. Instead of worrying about what you’re doing, how you are going to be ‘funny’ or take focus, listen to your scene partner, support them and give them what they need. You can endow your scene partner with a characteristic or viewpoint. The scene becomes easier to play, because you have a clear outlook. Taking that into a workplace is invaluable. “I notice a lot of people who come and see me who aren’t in improv will point out who they thought were good,” Lola says, but often they won’t be aware of all the work the whole team has done, “the person setting them up for those jokes that was the real master.

Improv also teaches the beauty of being able to make mistakes. Our education system fosters the notion of right or wrong; of success or failure. What it doesn’t always teach is that any creative process necessarily involves failure. The process is trail and error, and some of those early ideas will fail. You will only reach a good idea, something that works, because you have been through all of those earlier failed ideas. Improv is all about generating ideas and seeing if they work. Then wiping the slate clean and starting all over again, a new scene or a new show. And everything that has gone before is gone, good or bad. But more than this; in improv we say, “mistakes are gifts”. Sometimes, when something comes out wrong, or we do something odd or non sequitur in the scene – it becomes the ‘game,’ the funny or interesting thing that we need to really bring the scene alive. Equally, our mistakes, not only make it clear how to improve, but are sometimes accidentally wonderful ideas themselves. They add something unexpected to our work.

Before I took up improv I was paralysed with fear; not just the fear of failing, but the fear of getting anything wrong at all. Now I’ve learned to take pleasure in error, to rejoice in imperfection, to frolic in failure like a pig in shit. It’s meant pursuing a career in writing, something I never thought I was capable of before improv. It’s also been a massive fucking relief. Why should the only two options be being perfect or silent; that’s the recipe for a spectacular breakdown.

Many improvisers have used their improv skills and increased confidence to change their career or to progress within their existing one. It changed Lola’s working life in a more tangible way. She used to work in a fast-paced, high-powered sales role for a stag and hen do company. She went from thinking of improv as a lame hobby,” to a career. Two years after she started,I quit doing sales pretty much completely. I just decided to go into comedy full time. The main things that changed within that time is just like how much I realised I loved doing improv and loved creating comedy with people.”

Improv can also have an extremely positive effect on your personal life. Another key tenet of improv is ‘yes, and;’ it’s the building blocks of any improv scene. The basic idea behind ‘yes, and’ is that you agree with anything your scene partner says, and then you add to it. Together you build the world. The worst thing to do in improv is to block. Blocking is denying the reality that the other improviser has set up, in this way you undo all the work that your fellow improviser has just done.

Lola found that feeding the creative part of her brain reminded her of another activity.It brought out this really playful spirit, which I think was being brought out at the weekend when I was taking ketamine genuinely that’s what it reminded me of; it was the same buzz.” Lola still enjoys going out, she just has less need to get shitfaced these days, I still go out and get drunk and I love that, but I don’t have to do it to have a good time. In sales there was definitely a creative part of me that was frustrated.”

Along with greater fulfilment, Lola now has a better sense of herself. Before she took up improv, she had a string of bad relationships, including a boyfriend who told her that women aren’t funny. “Doing improv meant I hung out with men who weren’t seeing me as anything other than someone who was making them laugh in a class.” Instead of being objectified, Lola was valued on the merits of her character! Having never been picked to be part of a sports team or equivalent in her younger years, it was a confidence boost to be picked for an improv team called The Petting Zoo, or as she puts it, oh fuck I think I’m actually good at this. 

I think I was probably a bit of a sexist before I did improv,” jokes Lola. Improv is, in general, a supportive place for women, and this is another of its merits.

Improv can also change the way you act within a relationship. If you’re constantly seeing positive repercussions of people agreeing with each other then subconsciously that is going to affect you,” says Lola. If you are trained to support what your scene partner says and add to it, it’s almost impossible not to take that into your personal life. In moments where you would have previously found yourself shutting someone else down because you are uninterested or opposed, you find yourself instead listening and even responding positively. Is there a better way to foster an intimate bond than to not only say yes to the things that your significant other loves, but also to build on them?

I think that the main thing that it’s done for me is the network.” Says Lola. This is perhaps the most tangible way in which improv can change your life. Lola reels off a list of people that have helped her, including one improviser who told her all the practical things she needed to do when she quit her job; get headshots, be introduced to an agent. “That doesn’t happen if you’re doing solo comedy,” Lola points out. And she’s right, though of course they are not mutually exclusive; there are many people that do both.

I’ve found in improv not just a network of useful contacts, but also the best friends. A group of people literally trained to say, “yes and”. They will always come to your parties, always sing at karaoke, and if you find yourself unwell, there will always be an improviser offering to come and pick you up, hang out and watch movies, or give you a hug. “I’ve had a bunch of shitty minor health issues this year,” says Lola. “My improv friends were the ones constantly messaging me ‘are you okay, can we do anything, can we bring anything round?’” Maybe that’s in part why the scene is thriving; people come for the fun, but they stay for the friendship.


I ask Lola if she’s happier now, “I’m so skint, but yeah I’m a hundred per cent happier.” She replies.


And I have to say, so am I.


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