It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m nervous. My group, db Improv, is about to take the stage. I’m not an actor and never really thought of being one. But here I am, at the Doreen Black Box Theater in Ateneo’s new arts and innovation hub, the Areté, about to take the stage with my teammates.
It’s been just about two years since I made the decision to take up improv. In April 2017 I saw a friend share a Facebook post from a group called Third World Improv announcing classes in Quezon City. I was in my late forties then, looking to get out of a rut in my life and learn new things. (I’d just signed up for a djembe class and had spent a few Sunday afternoons clumsily thumping an African goblet drum.) I wondered: Did Third World Improv have anything to do with SPIT, or Silly People’s Improv Theater? I’d seen them perform a few times, most recently at the Manila Improv Festival from a few years back, and they were amazing. I never expected to be anywhere as good as them. But then I thought, I’m a teacher. I know what it’s like to improvise in the classroom. Oh, hell, I said, and signed up.
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The next day, as I walked around the Ateneo campus, I ran into Ariel, a colleague, a wonderful stage actor, and a member of SPIT.
“Do you know anything about this Third World Improv?” I said. “I signed up for their Level One class in QC.”
“Really? I’m teaching the class!”
Lovely. And so Ariel was my first teacher, the first of three, each of whom appeared at the right time in my improv journey.
The classes were held in a house converted into a music school-slash-rehearsal space for rent on Malingap Street in UP Village, a ten-minute walk from my house. So for three hours a week over eight weeks I met with Ariel and a small group of others and learned this art that was entirely new to me.
There are only a few rules and you need to imbibe them if you are to succeed. And they are deceptively simple. Such as: Say Yes, And. That is, agree and accept (Yes) all the ideas your co-performers present to you, which are called offers, and build on them (And). When a scene partner calls me Hon, or Anak, or Bro, then I’m a lover, a son, or a buddy. When Pappu calls me “Yaya” in a scene, I’m his yaya. (He also calls himself a three-year-old boy, and so he is. Why a three-year-old has such complex language skills is part of why that scene was so funny.)
Then after I’d finished that level, I moved on to the next. And the next. Now here I was, in Level Five, the last level. On this Sunday afternoon, the 17th of March, I would perform for the last time as an improv student. Each level ends with a showcase, a kind of recital. It’s a short performance, 20 to 25 minutes long, showcasing the performers and the things you’ve learned over the eight weeks of your training.
The show starts. We are doing the Harold, a complex long-form piece that involves the creation of three narratives, each composed of three scenes. The first round of scenes is over, and I stand on the sidelines watching my teammates on stage. My mind wanders. I think about what to do next in the story Ida and I are creating. Do we make a time-jump and take our narrative to the far future? Do we pick up just where we left off? Do I make my character fail in chasing his dream of making a career out of singing opera? How about Ida’s character? I endowed her character with a career in architecture. Where does she go next?
Then the most important thing to happen that day happens. A voice in my head says, quite sternly: “Shut up and listen.” And I do. I stop thinking about what to do next, and I just watch my teammates perform. I react to plot twists and revelations. I laugh. I relax.
Some time after a previous showcase I bumped into Gabe Mercado, founder of SPIT and Third World Improv and widely acknowledged as the father of improv in the Philippines. (He prefers to call himself the tito of improv.) He asked me how I was finding learning improv. (We knew each other from our college days.)
I said, Learning improv teaches you things about yourself you don’t necessarily want to know. Improv, I’ve come to discover, is a discipline of letting go. And I discovered, sometimes to my alarm, sometimes to my shame, that I cling to things that make it hard for me to progress. The need for control, to be the boss, to have things go my way. The need to be the funny guy, the popular guy, the life of the party. The need to be liked, to be applauded, to be the star.
You let go of the need to have a plan, because you enter a scene having no idea where it will go. You and your partner create it together, and you take turns taking the lead. You give each other ideas on where to go, what to say, what to do next. Once in a while you end a scene and laugh and say to your partner, Where the hell was that going? and she smiles and throws up her hands. Sometimes you look at each other and say, Hey, that was good. Once in a while you’re both astonished at what you created.
These need not distract you from what is important. Being present. Being alive to what is before you. The simplest rule in improv is this: Listen. And if you do, you forget your plans. You don’t think of what comes next. You stay in the present, with the person you’re sharing the moment with. Your ego recedes, and something more genuine takes over. It’s the best remedy to getting out of your head: Listen, and respond truthfully.
Ironically, the result is often funny. Say “improv” and the next word that comes to mind is “comedy.” (Well, maybe “standup comedy,” which is something entirely different. When friends discover I’m taking up improv, they ask, “So you’re doing standup comedy now?” No, I’m not, I say as politely as I can.) But the humor results not from performers cracking jokes or being witty. It comes from being relaxed, being attentive, feeling safe, and so feeling brave enough to take risks.
Which is another thing that appeals to me about improv: the acceptance of failure. All my life the need to be excellent has been pumped into me, by my family, by school, by the world. Be the best. But the improv ethos contradicts it. Be average, it goes. Let yourself fail. Oddly, the result is excellence. Because when you know you don’t need to be great, when you know you can fail, and when you’re with people looking out for you (“Take care of your partner” is another rule), you take risks. As an honor student and now a college teacher, I’m quite familiar with playing safe in order to do well. I see it in school all the time. Improv is the antidote to playing safe.
After that voice in my head gives me that trenchant instruction, I relax. I feel safe. The lights are bright, there are about a hundred people in the room, and anytime I could do the wrong thing, but I feel safe. I cut into scenes confidently, there’s a spring in my step, I speak my lines as if they’d been written down. I’ve performed nearly ten times before a public, and this is my best ever. My group has tried to do the Harold many times over the past eight weeks, and this is our best ever.
The performance ends. We bow. The applause washes over us. Afterwards the compliments come in. The best one comes from Gabe himself. “I thought your Harold was beautiful,” he says, after I bump into him in the lobby.
My back aches, I’m hungry, but I’m happy. I’m now officially a graduate, and db Improv is now what is called a house team (as alumni groups are called). My heart is full, yet it feels lighter than ever. Improv is a discipline of letting go of things you think you need but really don’t. What I’d let go had been replaced, I discover, with gratitude.
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db Improv takes the stage again at the Manila Improv Festival, which runs March 27–31 at the PETA Theater Center in Quezon City. We will be one of more than fifty groups from the Philippines and around the world celebrating the joy of improv. Tickets are available at Ticket2Me.net. The schedule of performances, workshops, and discussions is here.