Lam: And how do you teach that?
Brister: There are exercises that we do that relate to it. Sometimes, when we do scenes it's a lot of stopping and starting—giving an improviser an adjustment—and then moving on. Eventually, people kind of get it. When you're waiting for somebody to stop talking, what you're really doing is saying that you want to control the situation. Control is not a good thing in improv at all, it's not about trying to control what's going on. So eventually you get people to let go, and to really listen and be in the moment. But that can take some time and some work. Our level one sessions are eight weeks, and it takes longer than eight weeks. It's hard to learn.
Lam: Why do you think it's so hard for people to learn to listen?
Brister: We always want our little scrap of control. There are other ways people show that: For example, when people ask a lot questions sometimes they're looking for control. I have an ear for that. What they're really saying is: "What's my angle? How can I get my foot in here and control the situation?" Giving in and saying “yes” is so hard, but ultimately it's the most rewarding thing that you can do. It's scary.
Lam: Is there a particularly memorable student in your years of teaching?
Brister: There was a guy, when he came to me he was already really great with characters and voices. At UCB, the whole philosophy is less is more. We want you to be able to be yourself on stage, and not do a bunch of crazy characters. Although there's room for that too, but you have to be comfortable being yourself. And making this guy find his way to be comfortable being himself was a real challenge. But ultimately, he's really great and he's still improvising. That's happened many times.
You're not necessarily getting all actors. Out here in LA, you get more actors and writers. In New York, you have more of a mix: actors, writers, and then an attorney. When you get that attorney, what's fun is when you get somebody who doesn't want to perform, but they're really good at it. You'll get a guy who's an attorney that wants to do better in front of his peers, to speak in court better, and that guy in class turns out to be a really good straight man. That is just a revelation to see that: You don't have to be an actor, this is something that translates to normal humans. And that has happened quite a bit, both here and in New York. People who aren't necessarily performers, or want to be performers, or even have a comedy career—but they've got a really good ear for what's funny.
Lam: What do you find rewarding about teaching improv?
Brister: I get a laugh. I have a job that I love, I can't imagine not having this job. I am the luckiest person in the world that I get to teach adults how to play make-believe. I don't look forward to every class, but I look forward to teaching and watching people progress. I'm part of a theatre and community that I love, so I feel really lucky that my job and my life are intertwined in a way that I'm really happy about.