Last night I went to my first improv class. The group of around fifteen people ranged from experienced to the totally green. My two PhD colleagues and I were in the latter.

I’ve wanted to get into improv for a long time. Back in NZ one of my fellow UXers had done several classes and found it not only fun but useful in everyday life. I was on the point of doing classes in Auckland but then moved to the UK. I had initially thought that there was nothing similar in Newcastle, but finally found the classes at The Mixer Jesmond. (I thought this was new, but I was wrong: these had been happening for a while at The People’s Theatre, and the town boasts its own improv-comedy troupe The Suggestibles).

The fundamental concept of improv is the offer — one person offers something to another (be it a phrase or a prop), and the other has to take it. The offer requires performers to be focused and aware of others, something were were taught with a game where you have to ‘throw’ a clap to others (it’s harder than it sounds).

An offer can be accepted or blocked. We did games with this where we either always accepted an offer (e.g. Over the top excitement at whatever imaginary object was given to us) or blocked it (flatly denying that the object given to us was what it was). As you might guess, accepting helps move the action along than blocking, but what’s also interesting is the energy: excitement is infectious, while blocking can either be a real downer or have its own strange form of energy (depending on how you play it).

I found the verbal games, such as expanding on stories and playing expert, fairly easy. (I’d argue design school teaches to just go with something, and working as an interaction designer forces you to know how to sound like an expert.) One really interesting point that came out from some of the games was to go for the obvious (such as the ‘feather duster javelin’ expert’s “when you throw it in the air it cleans”) rather than the funny, and that ludicrous statements can sound even more convincing than plausible ones depending on how authoritative you sound.

The other element that we played a lot with was the physical aspects of improv: passing random objects to each other, acting like various things, taking on the role of an interviewer or audience. I’ve never been great at physical acting (or anything involving co-ordination), and my colleagues admitted to similar issues. It’s interesting to imagine the weight of the pretend giant peach that someone has given you, or the invisible door handle you’re supposed to turn. (Hubert Dreyfus has spoken about studies that show people can imagine a door handle and get their hand into approximately the right shape, but it’s not as close to the shape their hand makes just before a real one). As someone who’s looking into the way designers understand touch, it was a reminder that there are elements of it (namely prioperception) that I’m not too great at.

Still, if there was one overall theme, it was that there is no right or wrong in improv, only mistakes that can either just make you start again (the way to do it is to put your hands up and just say ‘Again!’) or run with. This is the first class of six, and I can’t wait to see what the other sessions hold.

Vicky Teinaki is a user experience designer at Newcastle upon Tyne agency Orange Bus. She is also working on a PhD at Northumbria University about better ways of communicating design methods within the design industry.