If you ask Mike Birbiglia, the principles of improv apply everywhere: "It changed the way I thought about everything," says the writer, director and actor. "[It] helps in parenting and being a good husband and being a good friend ... any collaborative job."
Best known for his stand-up comedy and roles in GIRLS and Orange Is the New Black, Birbiglia's latest project is Don't Think Twice, a movie that chronicles the ups and downs of a fictional, New York improv group called The Commune.
Right off the bat we learn some improv fundamentals. First: say yes. No matter what the audience or improv member throws out there — go with it. Second, it's not about you, it's about the group. The group will create something greater than the sum of its parts. (Improv guru Del Close once told a workshop: "You have a light within you. Burn it out.") And third, don't think. Don't let your head hold you back; improv is about impulse.
On and offstage The Commune is a tight-knit group of struggling actors and writers. They're into group think — in a good way — but personal ambition can be at odds with the good of the group.
One of the characters — Jack — is accused of "showboating" whenever talent scouts are in the audience. "Anyone from the industry shows up, you turn into a one-man audition tape," Birbiglia's character Miles tells him.
Birbiglia says it certainly happens in New York when producers for shows like SNL and The Daily Show come to see improv groups. "There is an extent to which you freeze up or you think: Should I do my best character?" he says.
When TV producers show up at one of The Commune's shows, Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) can't help himself. To impress them, he goes into a very solo impersonation of President Obama. The audience eats it up, but his fellow performers are furious.
Being an improviser means tapping into a part of yourself that's "endlessly generous," says longtime improv coach and performer Liz Allen. That said, getting in front of an audience also requires "a lot of confidence — maybe even confidence/cockiness."
So yes, the group principles of improv can be at odds with the singular drive one needs to be an artist. And yet, some of the most accomplished and influential comedians and writers — think: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Key & Peele — partly credit their success to improv training.
Allen, who studied with Del Close at iO Chicago, says improv teaches comedians to "go with the flow." Embracing spontaneity helps stand-up comics prepare for any kind of audience, she says: "Then you don't get caught up in impatience and ego; There's drunk teenagers making out in the front row? Perfect."
Birbiglia attended one of Allen's workshops when he was in college. ("Liz Allen made me cry," he recalls.) But he says he appreciates her approach to the craft. Improv "can get kind of jokey," he says. "What Liz teaches is something that's really from your gut and heartfelt."
Allen coached some of the actors in Don't Think Twice, and to promote the film, she and Birbiglia have been giving workshops to improv groups around the country. Allen says she's surprised at how much the movie mirrors her own experience. "Being an improviser on stage is a blast, but the rest of the stuff off stage is frequently very unpleasant — and this movie does not shy away from what's unpleasant," she says.
When Jack lands a job on the SNL-style TV show, the others in the group get together to watch his debut. As he impersonates an old-timey ticket-taker at a movie theater, Miles comments, with a hint of satisfaction: "Skillful, but not funny."
Don't Think Twice is ultimately about any group of individuals who simultaneously collaborate and compete. Allen says, when it comes to the improv world, Birbiglia has captured the "supportive, miserable, ambitious, lost, funny, lovable but sometimes irritating people that we are."