When was the last time you did anything that was just pure unchecked fun? The last time you laughed so hard it became almost impossible to catch your breath? The last time you made a new friend whom you knew you were going to keep around for the rest of your life? Chances are if you’re out of college and working a full time job, then it has been at least a little while since any of these happened. But if you do improv, then you probably did all three last weekend. 

What’s improv? Well, that’s easy. It’s improvisation. But what is improvisation? As an improv artist who performs live shows regularly, I ask the bar, restaurant or auditorium owner where I’m performing what they tell someone about the show when they come to buy a ticket. “Kuch bhi. Matlab random.” (“Anything. I mean, random.”) 

In India’s burgeoning comedy industry, which has seen the dramatic rise of stand-up comedy from non-existent ten years ago to comedians now being the pulse of the zeitgeist, Improv is just now starting to catch on. Improv occupies an interesting space between theatre and stand-up comedy. As a show it’s compact enough to be performed anywhere, without any major set, lighting or costume requirements. Like a stand-up comedy show, it just needs the performers to be heard and seen. But, like theatre, it requires practice and training. And unlike a stand-comedy show if an audience comes to watch improv two nights in a row, they will get brand new jokes each time, made up on the spot.

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How does it work?

To explain what we do, most improv artists immediately point to the ubiquitous “Whose Line is it anyway?” to explain what an improv show is. That comparison is not inaccurate but it is incomplete. Sure, it’s a show with a lot of games that are made up on the spot. It will make you laugh. Each game essentially revolves around a restriction on the performer, something they can or cannot do. But that’s not what’s making Improv a big deal now. 

Most people get the greatest joy from improv not by performing for a live audience, but by attending workshops where they play various games in small or, often very large, groups. What are these games like? Well, at the heart of every game is the magical word: YES! Yes, is an act of acceptance, and once you accept every offer thrown your way you can start building a crazy world that doesn’t fit the rules of the real world. 

In India, Improv has taken a longer period to find popularity than sketch comedy or stand-up. That’s because these two can be easily transferable to You-Tube and shared widely, while an improv show feeds off of the energy of a live audience that doesn’t know what to expect, and often laughs when things go wrong, which they constantly do.

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Adam Dow began Improv Comedy Mumbai in 2009, regarded as the first group in the country. Also based out of Mumbai, Kaneez Surka is a highly-regarded improvisational performer and teacher who also tried to bring the art form to Amazon Prime with famous comedian friends Kanan Gill, Abish Mathew and Kenny Fernandes under the generic title “The Improvisers”. The Improv in Bangalore was founded in 2012, and in 2016 they performed at the Sweden International Improv. 

In Delhi, the scene began more recently but is growing far more quickly. There have been various improv comedy groups in the city. Most notably, Improv Delhi which was formed by church goers looking to do something for the community, and my own group, CueLess Improv, Delhi’s most experienced and successful improv team, performing regularly since 2014. As a trainer of improv, I have taught more than 200 Delhi actors since 2012, but it’s only now that the demand has gotten too much for me to handle.

The reason for the sudden burst has to do with the community that forms around improv teams. As we begin to notice that we live in a society the isolates us more and more, especially as we settle into traditional roles, Improv offers an incredible release from the norm. Even meeting just once a week with a group of people and knowing that for at least 2 hours all you’re going to do is be silly and free of responsibility is as liberating as what most self-help gurus will peddle. Except here, you don’t have to follow any guru, only your own imagination. 

My own training in improv involves mostly creating energy, focus and teamwork amongst the participants. There’s a misconception that only extroverted people, who are expressive, loud and domineering can do improv. In practice, it’s usually the opposite that’s true. Improv attracts shy, introverts who have trouble expressing themselves. No improve scene is ever done alone, and each participant is asked to focus on their partner. Once they remove the spotlight from themselves the participant begins to transform into a performer, and secure that they have someone who will take care of them, can begin to let go. It’s this vulnerability, along with a promise of safety, that gives improv its tremendous power, and what makes it so addictive.

In fact, it’s now that studies are being commissioned to study the positive effects of improvisation on those with mental health problems. It seems that the practice of improve alleviates symptoms of depression and anxiety. My own group will be conducting a pilot study this year in conjunction with the Instituto Cervantes Nueva Delhi and the Goethe Institute to seek out this very connection. 

It’s also now that big corporations are waking up the power of saying “yes” and applying improv workshops in the work place. The effect of an even a 2 day improve workshop is improved productivity, sharper focus and dramatically improved intra and inter office communications. When people start saying yes to each other and feel they can express themselves in a way that resolves conflict, they become far more excited about whatever is they do. All it takes is just a small shift in focus.

While it’s an exciting time for improv, it’s also important to remember that with the sudden burst of groups that perform, it’s important to find the one that’s the right fit for you. If you’re not looking to perform, find a group that just likes to practice on the weekends. You can always join a performing group later, or start your own! And if you’re not sure which group you want to join then keep an eye on one thing. Go watch them perform or train, if they begin a scene with a question, that’s the first red flag, and then if the answer to that question isn’t a “Yes” then get out of there!

About Varoon

Varoon P. Anand is Delhi’s most experienced Improv trainer and performer. He is a multi-award winning writer, director, actor and trainer based out of Delhi since 2009. He initially trained under Danielle Miles, of Fortetheatre UK, and founded the group Improv8 in Panama. Improv8 is still active and will be celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. As artistic director of Kaivalya Plays, Varoon has also trained more than 200 Delhi actors in the art of improv from 2012 onwards. In 2014, Varoon founded CueLess Improv, Delhi’s most successful and consistent improv team. CueLess still performs all around the city, and will be touring the rest of the country this winter. Most recently, Varoon has also been commissioned to develop a study on the therapeutic effects of improv on individuals with mental health disorders. If you would like to take a workshop, learn more, or know someone diagnosed with a mental health condition like depression, manic-depression, or anxiety who could benefit from some improve you can reach Varoon at varoon.anand@gmail.com