YES, AND: THE IMPRESSIVE BENEFITS OF IMPROV

When you ask MTYP instructor Stephen Sim what young people can learn from improv his first response is “so much.” His second response is to list all of the qualities and virtues improv can impart, “Listening, being present, confidence, adaptability, problem-solving…” the list goes on and on.

“Yes,” is not just the first rule of improv, it’s also what Stephen Sim said when Kent Suss, MTYP’s Theatre School Director, asked him if he wanted to teach improv at MTYP seven years ago. Fast forward to today, Stephen is nearing the end of teaching Improv for Teens as part of our spring courses.

He says maintaining physical distance and mask-wearing in a medium so based on physicality has been a creative challenge. “It’s an ongoing experiment,” he says. To create a sense of closeness, Stephen played a true story game with the teens on the first class. “They were able to share a piece of themselves because they weren’t able to have that small talk. It broke the ice and really helped.”

Stephen’s love of improv came to him accidentally. It was the early 90s and he was a writer doing sketch comedy. He started doing improv and then “our improv just started getting better than the things we could write.” He was doing improv at a time when it wasn’t yet in the mainstream, at a time when Whose Line is It Anyway was just a twinkle in Drew Carey’s eye. As the years went on, more and more opportunities popped up. “I was able to travel all over the world and perform,” he says. In 2000 he founded the Winnipeg If… Improv Festival and it’s been running ever since. If you live in Winnipeg, you’ve most likely seen him perform at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival and the Winnipeg Comedy Festival in duos CRUMBS and Stephen & Caity.

For Stephen, one of the most rewarding things about teaching improv is seeing the positive changes that take place over the course of a class. He says he’s seen apprehensive or shy students who, after a course, will return the next year and become the leaders in the room. There are two TAs currently assisting in the Improv for Teens class, both of whom were previous students. “It’s really nice to see that development,” he says.

Stephen believes a good improv student and a good improviser are the same thing. He says the best students don’t come in with a preconception of what they think should be happening in the class (or, if you’re on stage: the scene). “You have to forget about what you think is supposed to happen and just be open to what is actually happening,” he says.

His advice for kids who feel nervous trying improv? “Firstly,” he says, “it’s completely natural to feel nervous.”

Stephen performing virtual improv at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival
Stephen performing virtual improv at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival

And then he gives his best tip: think of improv like a good conversation. All of the qualities that make a good conversation are the qualities of a good improv scene – listening to the other person, making eye contact, and not knowing what you’re going to say next because you’re truly present in the moment. “We all know how to have conversations, if you can have a conversation, you can do an improv scene.”

At a time when anxiety and feelings of isolation are at an all-time high, Stephen says improv can help young people embrace change and see the small moments of positivity in everyday life. “Adaptability is huge,” he says. “To be able to work through the anxiety or nervousness or fear… to not know anything and still succeed. It gives young people the self-confidence to do anything.”

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Know a child who could benefit from learning improv? While we’re still waiting on direction from the Province regarding whether day camps may be able to be in person or will be a digital offering, we have an entire week of improv camps planned for August. Check our website regularly for updates on how and when our summer camps will be executed!