Improv classes embrace spontaneity, crush self-judgment

Tom Soter feels like he’s been doing improv theater for his entire life, but it doesn’t feel any less special than when he first began.

Soter attended his first improv class in 1981 to improve his sketch-writing while working on a show called Videosyncrasies, and he hasn’t stopped since. He performed with the New York Improv Squad from 1984 to 1986 and took over the improv jam from Ian Prior in 1993, renaming it Sunday Night Improv.

“Through it all, I discovered that improv is a social experience, and that – while the form itself is essentially shallow – the ties and connections that develop from improv can last a lifetime,” Soter said. “After 30-plus years, some of my closest friendships – Alan Saly, Tom Sinclair, Christian Doherty, Carl Kissin, Ian Prior, Miriam Sirota, John Fulweiler, Tom Carrozza, and Carol Schindler – were born in the trenches of improv.”

Soter believes anyone can learn to be creative and improvise, even if they don’t believe it themselves. His variety of classes at Sunday Night Improv are designed to encourage students to try.

“Everyone is creative. We are not all creative in the arts but we are all creative. Some people are creative with numbers, some with relationships, some with policies, but we all have the ability to be creative,” Soter said. “The reason we don’t often recognize it is because our creativity is squashed by judgment, our own and that of others. We freeze inside, we contract, and our creative ideas and concepts are not able to flow. In that place, there is little spontaneity.”

Soter believes the point of improv is to embrace everyone’s potential and positive feedback is essential to continuing learning creativity.

Sunday Night Improv teaches the art of spontaneity (Photo: Jonathan Smith)

“Too often in life, we are not given permission to be creative, whether it’s at work – when a colleague shoots down a half-formed idea rather than building on it – or at home – where you may find you’re battling with your spouse because neither of you can lower your status. Applying improv to your life can change it.”

According to Soter, spontaneity is often the greatest challenge to overcome when it comes to improv. Improv at its core is about instinct.

“Being spontaneous is harder than most people realize. Spontaneity is about staying ‘present’ and using your body and your instincts to create,” Soter said. “People find it difficult to be spontaneous because they stop that process with self-judgment.”

Soter notes that everyone judges themselves and censors ideas before ever voicing them, even the most mundane things. He believes it’s anything that people may think is boring or not funny and it then causes the mind to go blank.

“That judgment happens so quickly that we barely notice. We can edit our minds in a flash,” Soter said. “Just ask a student what his or her favorite color is and you can see this editing at work. Many times students will pause and then say their ‘favorite’ color. In that pause, they went through a few colors until they found one ‘safe’ to say. Black is too negative, yellow too bright, red too sexy, and so on down the line. The result: they say ‘blue’ or ‘green’ or some color they feel is acceptable.”

He’s always had an affinity for teaching since 1987 when he began teaching a few classes. Within a few years, word of mouth grew and he taught almost every night.

“I have always offered a supportive environment, offering extensive notes and everyone – some of my students have been with me for 20 years – has fun. Including me,” Soter said. “I really enjoy it. Teaching is as wonderful and as different as the students I instruct.”

Improv is about going with the flow and having trust in the person you’re working with. Soter recalls a story about Joan Rivers who would frequently deny whatever had been established on stage when she did improv at Second City in Chicago. The problem is that is “destroys the trust you have in your partner,” Del Close said in 1982.

Improv is all about agreement and commitment (Photo: Philipe Chang)

“You must accept what you are given,” Soter said. “If your partner establishes a reality, you do not deny that reality, because if you do, the scene or the game can’t continue.”

While Soter knows that it may be hard to craft a joke on the fly, it’s less about that and more about an agreement. The joke delivery and confidence behind it is what makes it funny.

“The key is to sell it by putting positive energy behind it,” Soter said. “Audiences appreciate it when you commit to an idea.”

Applying improv in everyday life could make a huge difference, according to Soter. He wishes more people would apply improv principles into their lives. Having authored 12 books, including one on improv, it’s definitely something he’s passionate about, which translates into his classes.

“Practicing improv principles in life could transform the world,” Soter said.