Taking the Plunge with Improv Classes

Recently I completed a round of Improvisational Comedy training with iOWest, the LA outpost of iOChicago, the well-respected improv training center and breeding ground for many of the best-known comedians of the past 30 years.

Hollywood iO West Theatre

Exterior shot of the iOWest theater.

I had won a gift certificate for improv classes in a silent auction, and wasn’t sure what to expect from my training. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if I would use my certificate, considering I am not an actor, aspiring comedian, or an author.

You may be wondering, what is improv? I’ll let Wikipedia explain,

Improv is a form of theater where most or all of what is performed is created at the moment it is performed. In its purest form, the dialogue, action, story, and characters are created collaboratively by the players as the improvisation unfolds in present time, without use of an already prepared, written script.


Turns out, doing improv can benefit almost everyone, not just people working in a comedy-related field. As our instructor James Mastraeini told us, “the basic skills you learn in Improv will help you become a better human being.” Indeed, in the first session of our 7-week Level 1 class, I learned that I was not the only non-actor in the group – there were at least 4 others including a software program manager (yep, someone from Corporate America like me)!

improv class group

My Level 1 Improv classmates


The foundational skills of improv include:

  • strongly listen and stay in the moment – don’t ‘plan ahead’
  • be honest and truthful – don’t go for the cheap laugh
  • think on your feet
  • be creative, instead of taking a concept from “A to B” try “A to C”
  • don’t deny what has been stated – always move the scene (conversation) forward
  • make choices, don’t sit on the fence

James and ioWest provided a supportive yet challenging environment for our class. He encouraged us to be fearless, and to trust in our classmates/scene partners – keeping in mind that the training room (the Loft Theater) was a safe space where we should feel totally comfortable. Each week, he brought us through a progressive series of warmup games to exercise our listening muscles and develop our improv skills, then a scene exercise where we actually put those core concepts to practice. Throughout, he also provided constructive feedback to help guide our thinking and to improve ourselves in the next scene.

By the end of the 7 weeks, I was left wanting more improv! It’s challenging, and works a part of your brain that you probably don’t often get to access. Where in the course of your everyday life do you have to practice spontaneity and thoughtful creativity while staying in the moment? Also, I definitely feel like these improv classes improved my listening skills as well as my ability to relate to other people. I now make an even more focused effort to stay in the moment during conversation, instead of ‘waiting my turn’ in a conversation. I even notice when others aren’t being active listeners – and when they’re doing the ‘waiting their turn’ faux pas! (I haven’t yet called anyone out on it, but am way more conscious of it now.)

I’ll also add that the class didn’t even feel like a class per se – it felt just like playing with other classmates, and having fun.

Improv austin 2009

Still photo of a troupe doing improv

The other cool thing about taking improv classes at ioWest is that you get free access to any of the improv shows. In fact, watching at least 3 live shows is required for anyone to pass to the next level of classes! I watched King Ten a couple of times, and also enjoyed the Quartet show.

If you’re on the fence or if you’re too scared or intimidated to take improv classes, just get over it and TAKE A CLASS! Most major cities have some form of improv classes or shows.  It will definitely take you beyond your comfort zone, but that’s the only place where we all grow!

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  1. I liked what you had to say in that even if you aren’t an actor or aspiring, you can still get so much out of taking Improvisation Classes.

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