On Performing Improv

Updated: Jul 18

The room is dark but there are spotlights on you, hot on your eyes and face and there’s a crowd, you can see their silhouettes and the odd glint of light on glasses, they’re alert, expectant, waiting for you to speak, to do something.

The sensation’s like riding a roller-coaster as it inches towards the first big drop. The stage creaks as you take a step forward. You take a breath and…

When I started taking Improv classes, two and a bit years ago there were some concrete things I wanted to get out of it.

  1. I have quite a thinky job and wanted to do something instantaneous and physical.

  2. I wanted to be a better writer, and I thought Improv might make me one.

  3. And I wanted to perform in front of a crowd.

I wanted *that* feeling. Live performance.

My wife thinks I’m nuts. Standing in front of a roomful of strangers, not knowing what to say and what will happen next. She gets sympathetic anxiety just thinking about it.

And that’s really normal.

Your mind and body reacts in anticipation to performing an action, any action, whether you’re about to step on stage, run a marathon or boil an egg. How you *feel* that reaction, whether it’s anxiety or excitement, is all down to context. Like, maybe you can poach the perfect egg in your own kitchen without raising a sweat, but if you were competing in the Masterchef final, your heart might race a little.

My first Improv show was a Rat Race with nine other classmates over a year after I’d started classes. I’d put off performing, in part, because I was nervous. I wanted to be on stage and I knew it wasn’t the Masterchef final, but still. What if I was crap? What if I froze?


There’s a cold buzz in the build-up to a show. A weight in the back of your head that gets heavier as you approach call time. I remember being one of the first to arrive, moving some chairs and pacing the stage to help set-up the lights. Then more improvisers arrived, we played some warm-up games and pretty soon it’s happening, you’re sitting in the wings, the crowd has their seats and a pint and you’re mere minutes away from being on stage.


I don’t remember the first few games but I’ll always remember a scene I had in the second half of the show. I was playing bacteria in a petri dish with a philosophical worldview and an ambition to be mildew and my partner, Kate, built on this to play bacteria who wanted to be Yakult.


And people laughed, properly. A communal roar, louder than you expect. Even in the dark you can see shoulders raise as they chuckle and people stop drinking mid-sip so as not to spill it.


I’ve performed many times since, and sometimes it’s gone better and sometimes it’s gone worse but I realise doing Improv won’t ever really be scary again. You can never get it wrong, or even freeze, because someone will always step in and help you. But part of the feeling remains. The heightened sensation, the focus, the anticipation of being on stage, and then finally being in the moment.

Because when the spotlight’s on you, and there’s a crowd, expectant, leaning forward in their chairs to watch your every move, you take a breath, a step forward, and you act.

And it feels great.

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