As a circus student I hear a lot of discussion about which discipline is the “best” or “most valuable” skill to learn. Although there a many different views out there on this matter, I would like to throw in my personal opinion. I think that the most valuable skill for all types of performers to learn is improvisational comedy.
So what is improvisational comedy? Basically, it is acting, without a script. Sometimes, improv is purely dramatic, but oftentimes, especially in circus, is has a humorous component too. In improv, you must learn how to troubleshoot and make up things on the fly. I have been taking improv comedy for almost the entirety of my time in circus.
Many people would put down improv comedy as “just for clowns”, but in fact it is just as useful for performers of other disciplines. As an aerialist, I have seen an endless amount of graceful, dignified aerial pieces. These acts are beautiful, and technically fabulous, but what I really love is when an aerialist sneaks some subtle humor into the piece. In an otherwise serious act, a bit of comedy can provide some contrast and help the audience stay focused. Having something funny in an act the audience expects to be austere can also make your piece more memorable. This principle can apply to any circus discipline or act.
Having even a basic knowledge of improv can also be a lifesaver if you slip up on stage. Although we all try to avoid it, all performers mess up in performance at one point or another. Sometimes however, you can cover it up quite smoothly with a bit of improv.
Say, for example, the lights are going down the final shape of your long graceful lyra solo. Suddenly, your hand slips and you tumble to the ground. For many performers, this would be an embarrassing mistake. Most performers would just bow and walk off stage, which works fine, but the audience would still remember your mistake. However, using some simple improv skills, you could make your fall into a positive and seemingly intentional part of your act. For instance, perhaps you could allow yourself to land heavily, and then get to your feet and look around over dramatically to “make sure nobody saw”. Of course, you know the entire audience saw, which is what makes this gag funny.
So, if you’re interested, where can you find improvisational acting and comedy classes? Sometimes they are featured in a circus based workshop or camp, but this can vary between circuses. If your circus doesn’t offer improv, there are other places you can look. Acting or theater clubs and groups sometimes teach improv. You may be able to find an improv company in your town or city. If there is a theater in your city, acting and improv youth classes might also be offered there. You will likely learn in a very playful relaxed way.
Improvisational comedy is an important skill for performers of all levels and disciplines. It can boost your confidence and help you look and feel natural on stage. Improv can save you when you slip up and enhance your act. I definitely believe that performers of all disciplines should seek out at least beginning improv comedy training. Try it and watch your performing flourish!