After spending much of my life hiding from attention, I started coming out of my shell around the time I became a history tour guide in 2007. It had become clear over time I wasn’t cut out for the regular trapped-in-a-cubicle 9-to-5. Sharing my passion around my hometown while bossing people around was great experience, and let me hone new skills. One of my favourites was improvising spiels (but not facts) to suit my changing audiences and circumstances. This was something I attempted more often than my employers wanted. The scripts we were given were sacred, you see.
It shouldn’t be surprising that I was pulled into some improv classes in the last half-year. (If you’ve ever watched “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”–yep, like that, but with more long form.) I’d always known the improvisational players on WLIIA must have had plenty of practice and experience, yet I was again surprised by how technical improvisational acting could be: There are rules that make improv more cooperative, funny, witty, and fun to watch. Wit is a plus, but to my amazement, I learnt it can’t hold a game on its own. Cooperation is more vital.
It is the rules of improv that allow Flow among the players. Also, the needed state of mind for best results is not unlike in meditation–it’s best to be in the calm space of awareness and no-thought. And all while being “on stage”, dealing with other players, each with a mind all their own. It makes scripted acting look like cakewalk.
The lack of a script is what defines improv, with the dynamic of everyone on stage being a leader, with equal “control” (or lack of) over the others. This seems like anarchy at first glance. It was harder than I thought, because it soon became apparent that my natural inclination of observing, asking questions, and then speaking up was Not Going to Work Here. Not in games where you are developing and acting out scenes on the fly.
I had to learn improv’s cardinal rule of “yes, and”: Taking what info there was so far in the game, and running with it by making more shit up on top of that. I’m still learning that there is no right or wrong. (Nonjudgment!) There was just taking stock of what was already there, and adding more–it didn’t actually matter what!
Making stuff up should have been easy for me, but I had to break two habits: My need to ask questions (in a way, avoiding the “responsibility” of creating my own answers), and the bad habit of second-guessing myself. These are still a work in progress.
There’ve been other lessons from improv that remain strangely applicable to real life and/or spiritual practice:
Teamwork–If this is tough usually, imaging it without a plan, a script, or clear leader. For best improv results, everyone tries to pay attention and take cues from everyone else while making a contribution. Awareness is requisite, as is the willingness to serve.
The rules are “optional” but there to yield the best results. If anyone comes into a improvised story-in-progress and ignores all the developments so far to advance their ungrounded solo agenda, more likely than not, it fails and an audience can see the egomaniac derailing the game. (In an ideal society, everyone would spot and discourage this BS.)
The ego cannot lead. There are no “rehearsals” or script editors in improv. The players can see in real time which of their cues or potential jokes are being caught or missed by the others. There’s no revision if something is missed–it’s adapt or die. There is literally no time for personal drama, even if you’re disappointed you couldn’t use a joke, or someone else missed an opportunity, whatever. You move on. There is only Now. (Eckhart Tolle, eat your heart out.)
Also, players are sometimes (or frequently) forced to play embarrassing situations. You don’t get to refuse roles that are “beneath you”. You accept the role and find the gold in it.
Over-thinking is a trap. It produces one of two results: Waste, or paralysis. It’s related to judgment and perfectionism, that I’ve noticed in myself at least. In trying to come up with the perfect response, I freeze–and we have dead air. When someone else contributes, my chance passes. And it wouldn’t have really mattered what my response was, even if it was only to mirror another player’s contribution (“yes, and”). The mental warm-ups before the games usually get your mind ready for spitting out relevant (or random) ideas. Anything that adds, really, can be used. The other players will adapt or create connections that you can’t. To continue…
No one is responsible for carrying the entire game on their own, so you don’t have to create the entire joke or script in your head before playing. You just have to bring one item to the party at a time, and stop worrying if it’s good enough. A worthy idea for real life.
Involving your shadow side makes the story stronger. Briefly, the shadow or Shadow Self is the part of us that we deny or hide due to our own self-judgment, or our fear of the judgment of others. In improv, giving the Shadow Self a chance to play is an immensely valuable tool–and creates both humour and compelling story in the fantasy being made up on the go.
The first time I was “introduced” in an improv game, I was christened with the name of an STD. I learned fast that I could return the favour–the more cruel, the funnier. Improvisation covers more than just rude names, of course; you also create situations and back-stories: philandering spouses, disabling injuries, riches-to-rags, mates left at the altar–scenarios that would be painful in real life to face. Now, I had to learn to inflict these on other people! One part of me gasped in horror. Another part of me cackled in glee… and had no shortage of ideas.
In Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, it was postulated that most humour involves some sort of cruelty. This seems the case in improvisational comedy.
But I realised that it’s a strange but real love to show faith in one’s teammates by giving them painful or awkward situations to act out. When they rise to the role, the payoffs in humour are incalculable, and the respect earned is real. Mutual love underlies all.
And really, after the cruelty is played out, improv allows compassion and “kiss and make up” storylines, the more far-fetched, the better.
Commitment is beautiful. It’s part of accepting the “shitty” role or situation that has emerged for you, and going all the way with it. You may not like playing the odoriferous loner, or the dopey talking parrot (again, the ego cannot lead), but someone’s gotta do it. Commitment lets you find ways to take it far, and even further… and reap the rewards of that effort. The audience loves commitment. You may as well spread your funk to the best of your ability, or shake those tail feathers. Resistance is futile.
Mistakes don’t have to be wasted. In-scene awkward moments or “mistakes” can often become strengths or jokes by “covering” them with lame or improbable explanations, that in turn become more fodder for the developing plot. Nothing should be taken too seriously. A willingness to acknowledge the awkward bits is key (again, without judgment) and then to have fun(!!!) with the mistake. In this way, a “mistake” can be transformed into gold via some weird science of comedic alchemy I’m still trying to understand. Watching it in action is like witnessing magic. No description can capture this.
I’ve always had a sense of reverence for all theatre and live performance. And our lives in this dimension aren’t really different from playing roles in a show, albeit with a cast of billions. Truth is, if all the world’s a stage, most of us forgot our scripts and roles from the moment we got pushed out from the curtains.
And so we get out there and improvise!