By David Wheeler
Can I be real with you for a second?
Like, really real?
About three years ago, I moved here from Kentucky to be a professor at the University of Tampa. And I love the job. I also love the sunshine, the palm trees, the Spanish moss that grows on southern live oaks, and the manager’s special at Jason’s Deli on Fowler. I’m a man of simple pleasures.
But something was missing.
My people. My group. My collaborative mission. And a goal to work toward with this group. Where would I find such a thing?
Enter The Box, stage right. Never in a million theater seasons would I have imagined that improvisational comedy would be the missing ingredient in my Tampa life, but it surely was. Turns out I fit in well with creative types who like to perform. And I’m starting to realize that the lessons you learn in improv class are equally applicable to daily life. These life lessons come from my fabulous Box instructors (in chronological order of when they taught me): Michele, Alain, Paulie, Crystal, Rebecca, and Andrew.
Give yourself a challenge.
In the middle of my first performance in my Level 1 student showcase, I was pretending to be a DJ at a radio station. But there was no conflict, no tension, no pressure in the scene. Only after leaving the stage did I remember that I could have given myself a challenge — for example, pretending that I got a call from the station manager saying this was our last day on the air. What would I do if it was my last day on the air? In a way, improv is like embodying the advice about “living every day like it’s your last.” The Box helps me remember to challenge myself.
Be more specific.
I’m always telling my students to be more specific in the papers and articles they write for my class. But how often in our daily lives do we remember to be specific? How often, in the stories we tell people, do we remember to add the “telling detail”? In one of our classes, Crystal gave a great example. If you’re on stage, you can hold up a cupped hand and say, “Look at this!” Or you can hold up a cupped hand and say, “Look at this one-eyed toad!” Only one of those spurs a flood of creativity. Specificity encourages creativity.
You can never “yes and” too much.
The Box also taught me what Jim Carrey’s character from “Yes Man,” has known since 2008: Saying “yes” to opportunities leads to an infinitely more creative life, with untold opportunities for growth. This tenet of improv is one reason why this form of comedy works with my personality more than other forms. Because it’s about teamwork. It’s about building something together. It’s about making each other look good. It’s about the community more than the individual.
One time my classmate Taylor constructively pointed out when I’d negated my classmate Anne in a scene. I didn’t even realize I had done it. But once it was pointed out to me, I made a conscious effort to say “yes” to new assertions as they arose. I made sure to accept — and add to — what my teammates gave me. That’s also not a bad way to live your life.
David Wheeler is a journalism professor at The University of Tampa and a frequent contributor to CNN and The Atlantic. Follow him on Twitter @WheelerWorkshop.