Lessons from Improv #3: Failing Is Good

After discovering improvisational theater at her high school’s Annual Thespian Festival–which she assures is not a joke–Kimmy Gatewood became obsessed. She followed her obsession through college and eventually to New York, seeking out every possible improv teacher and experience she could find along the way. Kimmy has studied and performed improv and sketch comedy at venues including the Comedy Central Stage, Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, The People’s Improv Theater and Second City.

In her classes, Kimmy teaches students from a wide range of backgrounds. The students in her beginner-level classes are commonly people who just left their jobs or those who are bored with their 9-to-5s and looking to try something new. Many take on improv to build confidence, become better public speakers and learn to think on their feet. Kimmy also comes across artists, musicians and actors who are trying to learn to be more “in the moment.”After years of these types of interactions, one starts noticing patterns. For instance, people often confuse Improv with stand-up or sketch comedy. While stand-up and sketch may have elements of improvisation, improv is made up completely on the spot. “It’s like the math puzzle,” Kimmy says. “A square is a rhombus, but a rhombus is not always a square.”

According to Kimmy, another big misconception is that people think improv is too difficult and something they could never personally do, when in fact it is a familiar human experience. “We improvise every single day of our lives — not knowing the next words out of our mouths in a conversation with a friend or co-worker,” says Kimmy. As such, improv’s lessons are directly applicable to everyday situations.

Students have trouble at first with ‘yes, and…,’ the core philosophy behind improv. People tend to be so used to hearing “no” from others or even from themselves that their knee-jerk reaction is to lead by rejecting a new idea or finding fault with it. To overcome this apprehension, a lot of the early improv classes are aimed at cultivating a mindset of experimentation. The instructor’s objective is to get her students to say “Yes, I accept your idea and I’m going to make it better,” versus “No, I have a better idea.” Kimmy reminds them that in order to grow, they have to allow themselves to fail. “Think about the first time you learned how to type, or when you rode a bicycle,” she says. “As adults, we forget that failing is such an important part of the process because we do most of our learning as a kid. Failing is good.”

Kimmy recently packed her life up and trekked out to the West Coast, where she currently performs with her sketch comedy group, The Apple Sisters, at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade in Los Angeles. When asked about making the move to warmer weather and a bigger playing field, Kimmy responds in true improv style: “I’m terrified and excited, but (I say from my rooftop deck in a bikini) I will face the fear and say ‘yes, and…’ to the good and the bad that’s coming my way.”

This is the third article in a series of four titled “Lessons from Improv.”  Jack Cheng is a freelance ninja who constantly jumps back and forth between words, pixels and code. When he’s not working on odd projects or gleaming life-lessons from classes he signs up for on a whim, he writes about making ideas happen at jackcheng.com.

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Jack Cheng

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Jack Cheng is a writer, designer, and entrepreneur living in New York. He is the co-founder of Disrupto, Steepster, and Memberly.
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