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I Took Up Improv in My 50s

It was one of the best experiences of my life

A group of six people at an improv class

JJ Sulin

 Our two sons had left home. Our suburban house, which had once beckoned with its easy commute to Manhattan, was now just a place where I talked to my husband and figured out ways to spend time in the city. I was teaching writing workshops, but as much as I loved my students, I no longer felt scared or stimulated when I taught (or wrote). Two friends had been diagnosed with cancer. I needed something to laugh about and a creative kick in the ass.

So I signed up for an eight-week improv class. Our teacher Megan explained that the key to improv is to act in the spirit of “yes and.” Thus, if someone in the scene or the audience offered a prompt, you would add to it, thinking, Yes, and.… You built a world around the prompt and asked yourself, If this exists, what else exists? A classmate sent a note around later, explaining improv philosophy: “Think of it as building a house brick by brick — we should always agree with the world around us and add to it to make it bigger.”

In the first class, 16 of us stood in a circle. I was the oldest by 10 years, maybe 20. Megan instructed us to say our names and identify ourselves by a “superhero pose.” Neeka stood next to me. Wearing heart-shaped glasses, she chose tree pose. Two handsome brothers were taking the class together. One dramatically smelled his armpits. Other people swung their hips and clapped their hands. One guy flapped his arms. My mind went blank. “Laura,” I said, finally, bowing my head and drawing my hands together in prayer. Not funny.  

Before the second class, I drank a glass of chardonnay on an empty stomach. I showed up for the session relaxed but tipsy.

Megan split us up into teams. The prompt was “happy hour.”

I sat in a chair and said, “I like to drink alone.”

David joined me. “Alone? At happy hour?”

“Yes, and on an empty stomach.”

David laughed. “Well, eating is cheating.”

Megan called scene.

In another exercise the prompt was “midriff.” Jack and I stood next to each other. “I’m shopping for a midriff, and I’m 53,” I said.

“How about this one, with sleeves and a turtleneck?”

Ouch. I had brought that on myself.

Before the third class, I ordered cauliflower couscous and chardonnay and went to class with gas. Megan divided us into five-person teams and asked for a prompt. Someone said “Skunk.” The five funniest guys were on the same team and proceeded to fart and poop in one another’s faces. They were brilliant. I was trying to step outside my comfort zone, but if I had had to do that scene, I would have run from the room, crying.

In another scene, the prompt was “tree.” I jumped into tree pose. Tousal joined me. “How long can you do tree pose?” I asked.

“With shoes or without?”

I started hopping on my left boot. Toussal stood still. Megan told us to line up by birthday — January to December — and then line up shortest to tallest. The whole experience felt like elementary school, with the pretty, young teacher telling us what to do while we jumped around on one foot and pretended to fart in one another’s faces.

By the fifth class, I realized I sucked at improv. I had tried bridge and knitting — other activities meant to generate steep learning curves. But I wasn’t good at keeping track of cards or counting stitches, and I didn’t have the patience for activities that felt so sedentary. Improv was different — I left feeling exuberant. Even though I wasn’t good at it, I wanted to be.

By the afternoon of the seventh class, I realized that drinking wine before class made me sleepy and forgetful. I acted old enough as it was. How else to relax? My husband and I were working from home that day. “Hey,” I said when he came into my office to use the printer. “How about…”

“I have stuff to do.”

Fine. I’d get a foot massage near Penn Station. The people who run the place have a baby. I rang the bell and went up. My favorite masseuse dug her thumbs deeply into the soles of my feet. Down the hall, the baby chortled. A woman carried him out. He laughed and pointed as he saw us. I smiled back and went to improv feeling blissful. In one scene, I played a locksmith who learned my craft in prison. In another, I was a dead man’s mistress, getting my eyebrows waxed, with the dead man’s boyfriend. I wasn’t any funnier than I had been seven weeks earlier, but I was getting better at keeping a ridiculous conversation going.

In the eighth class, I played a stoned babysitter. The final show was in five days. I had invited 11 people. I asked Toussel how many he had coming. “None!” he said, laughing. I told him how many I had invited. “I’m sure it will be fine,” he said kindly.  On the train home, I texted everyone not to come.

The night of the show, the stage room was dark and crowded. The stage lights went on, and we filed onto the stage. An audience member yelled out the prompt “twister.” Neeka did a monologue about being caught in a twister in Indiana. I walked onstage, David joined me, and we played Twister, forming pretzel shapes around each other.

“This is some first date!” he said.

We twisted ourselves into positions, trying to be witty. Weirdly, the physical challenge of moving our bodies made dialogue easier. The audience laughed.

Afterward, I took the train home with drunk Rangers fans. My husband was asleep. My younger son, home for Thanksgiving, opened the door. “Did you have fun?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “And I’m doing it again.”