If you’ve ever had to talk to me for more than 10 seconds, I’ve probably mentioned that I’m on an improv comedy team.
When I first joined my improv team, the directors began training by starting off with very structured improv formats. One such format was the Harold, which follows a very strict pattern of scene sets. A lot of improvisers hate this format because there’s almost no freedom to take risks, but others thrive in its disciplined framework. Learning the Harold takes a lot of work, but it helped us build trust as a team.
In the process of teaching new formats, the directors were continually pushing us toward something. All the work we put in my first semester culminated into a format known simply as the Form. There are a lot of elaborate strategies used to teach the Form, but they only exist to clarify the one basic fundamental of the format: Do whatever the hell you want, but do it with a purpose and a sense of balance. It’s one of the most difficult and riskiest formats to perform but also one of the most rewarding and fun.
Before you can do the Form well, you have to be willing to ditch the comforts of a Harold. You have to accept that there aren’t any hard and fast rules, even if rules are the only thing you’ve ever known.
I’ve realized that in a lot of ways, the Form is a whole lot like college. I remember washing up on the shores of my freshman year and having no idea what to expect. I had come from a wholesome land without parties, substances or sex. Rules put in place by my friends and family made my world safe and generally predictable.
My social life in high school was restrained, much like a Harold. When I first started college, I continued to follow the rules I had learned growing up. I stayed in on weekends and mostly focused on school.
Of course, studying wasn’t the only thing that kept me busy those first few weeks; I was also auditioning for improv teams. Eventually I was invited to a callback, which involved an interview that went a little something like this:
I’m in a chair facing the four teammates conducting interviews. I’m so overdressed that one of them mistakenly asks me if I have a job interview later that day. First, they ask me why I want to join the team.
“Well, I did improv comedy in high school, too, and I honestly feel like high school is when I peaked.” I take a pause to laugh at my own joke. “If I can bring some of what I did in high school to college, maybe I can ride that peak a little longer, and college won’t be so scary.”
They ask a few more questions, and I answer them all pretty easily. They’re asking exactly what I expected them to ask. But then one of them speaks up.
“You know, we’re more than just an improv team, we’re also all really good friends. After shows, sometimes we’ll throw a party, and there can be substances involved. Are you comfortable with that?”
The question catches me off guard. I wasn’t used to people talking so openly about substances and partying. This is the first broken rule I would encounter, and now I have to improvise my way out of it.
“I’m chill with that!” I reply with overwhelming enthusiasm, so that they can’t tell I’m actually not sure if I’m chill with that. “I personally don’t do a lot of drinking or, like, other stuff.” I say “other stuff” because I can’t remember the names of any substances. “But I’m fine if you guys do, I still love to be around people and hanging out.”
Later that night, they offered me a spot.
My first post-show party with my improv team was the first time I’d ever been to a party that didn’t have parental supervision, the first time I’d gotten home after midnight and the first time I’d ever seen someone smoke the devil’s lettuce. I didn’t know how to react at first. After being told my whole life that things such as drinking, smoking and sex were unacceptable and immoral, I was suddenly finding out that most of that was total bullpucky.
Bit by bit, my team was picking away at the rules that ran my life. They were teaching me the Form, on the stage and off.
Now, at the end of my first year of college and improv, I am by no means a master of the Form, just like I’m still not always sure what to do with myself at a party. It’s all still marvelously confusing, but I think that figuring it out starts with that golden mantra of improv: Say yes, and make it up from there.
Shannon O’Hara writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on growing up through entertainment. Contact her at [email protected].