I don't know about you, but I don't remember learning how to walk. I'm pretty sure I must have learned at some point... I mean, I can walk, and I don't think I was born with the ability, so I have cleverly deduced that walking is a learned skill.
On the other hand, I clearly (and painfully) remember learning my multiplication tables. It started with learning the concept of what multiplying was, then by learning the rules of multiplication. Then there were a lot of tears, followed by some memorization. Finally, at some point, I realized I knew how to multiply and could do it without thinking about all those concepts and rules - and mostly without the tears.
Lisa has pointed out my stunning predictability, so you know where this is going, I'm sure.
Well, predictable or not, it's true... it's the same with improv comedy. There are concepts and a whole boatload of rules, notions that surprise many people. The seeming effortlessness of improv is created when players know the rules and play by them.
And, as with multiplying and perhaps walking, improv-ing requires a lot of study and practice and concentration to get the rules down, and sometimes that makes scenes anything BUT effortless. So many of us get caught up in the "I have to agree, but I also have to have a big emotional reaction, and I have to play it real, but I can't be argumentative, and and and..." until pretty soon everybody's head explodes in a big ol' slimy mess on the stage. Sometimes there are a lot of tears (okay, that may just be me; I have issues).
But then one day, everything clicks. You're doing a scene and you're 100% in it and you're not thinking about the rules or anything other than what your partner is saying. And you get done and obviously get a great critique because you were so on, and you think, "Wow. Why did that ever seem so hard?" You've learned the rules so well that you apply them automatically without conscious thought, just like walking or calculating the waiter's tip.
Yay you! That is a day you'll probably always remember. Not to be a downer, but here's something else you should remember: Just like there are days where you trip over your own feet for no good reason or mistakenly leave the waiter an 8.6% tip because you mangled the math, there will be days when the improv rules will elude you and you'll struggle again. But you don't give up walking or eating out just because you have an off day, so don't give up on improv either!
Want to learn the rules of improv? Take a Held2gether improv class! The walking is minimal and there's no multiplying. Promise.