Julie Livingston: Improv for Writers

Julie Livingston Column 2by Julie Livingston

One of the best things about being a writer is I can do it pretty much anywhere, any time. I am free to practice my craft as often and as vigorously as I like – or at least as much as I can stand. I don’t need specialized equipment, an exotic location or studio financing. Best of all, I don’t need anyone else’s permission to do it (if you read that last sentence and though, “Yes, I do,” please stay tuned because I will talk about that in another column soon).

Writing, in most of its incarnations, is a solitary pursuit. And that is somewhat true for TV writing as well. But, as I am learning, writing isn’t the only skill you need to become a TV writer. In fact, some people I’ve talked to recently have hinted it might not even be the most important. In addition to being able to write, you also need to be what they call, “good in a room.” You need to stand out without stepping on toes. You need to speak up, but not talk too much. Your job, I am told, depends heavily on your ability to contribute to the group effort without derailing the process by going off onto a tangent, holding on to an idea too hard or failing to listen to what others are saying.

To be “good in a room” you need to know how to work with people according to a specific set of standards. For some people that might mean overcoming their natural shyness. For others it could be learning to curb the tendency to blurt out every idea that pops into their head. Basically, it all comes down to understanding the protocol and being likable, which is not exactly something you can practice alone in the middle of the night.

Truth is, even if you are a really good writer, you can’t get into a room without knowing how to act in the room, but you can’t learn how to act in a room without ever being in one. Sounds like a classic Catch 22. Turns out, however, there is a way to build the skills you need. They actually teach classes in it – and not just in L.A. It’s called, improv. Every writer who wants to work in TV should learn improv, not because it teaches you to be funny (which, depending on who you ask, is debatable), but because it teaches you to be good in a room — comedy or drama.

First and foremost improv teaches you to listen, one of the best skills a person can develop, period, in my opinion. It forces you to work collaborate. It rewards the kind of logical thinking you would need to do if you joined the staff of an existing show, demonstrating again and again that things happening now must be motived by things that happened before. Improv requires you to participate. It trains you to contribute in the same way you would in a writer’s room. You cannot hide or shirk your responsibility in improv. If you don’t add to a scene, the scene dies and everybody knows you killed it.

Improv helps you get out of your head and be in the moment. That helps you have ideas — funny ones and dramatic ones — which, of course, is mandatory in any writer’s room. Improv forces you to work with ideas that aren’t yours and you might not even like. Improv helps you get comfortable making a fool of yourself. It teaches you how to take a risk, fail and move on. Also, It’s fun. Really. I swear.

One of the downsides, at least for me, of being a writer is that it can be lonely and isolating. I sometimes go days without talking to another person and it can be easy to feel like I’ve forgotten how, assuming I ever knew. Improv takes care of that. It forces me to interact with people. Better yet, it gives me a general set of guidelines how. Improv helps forge connections. Being silly and embarrassing yourselves builds bonds between people, which is another reason aspiring TV writers should do it. It is a standard axiom of improv that every scene is about relationships. So is every meeting, every phone call and every chance encounter with a potential friend and collaborator.

It’s possible I will always seek solitude to hone my writing chops, but a TV job means working with people, so until I go to work in a writer’s room, I will, from time to time, force myself out of whatever safe lair I’m hidden away in and risk humiliation in front of my peers, not because I aspire to be a performer, but because I want to be a TV writer, which, right now, means putting in the time on the stage as well as on the page.

About Julie Livingston

Julie is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles.