I originally wrote this as a guest post for Tara Gentile’s Scoutie Girl blog.
You’re an improviser. Yes, really.
The word “improv” may conjure visions of jazz musicians in smoky clubs, or comedy shows in basement theaters, where empty cans of PBR pose as carpeting. But while music and comedy are the two arenas in which improv is most visible, the truth, my friends, is this: we’re all improvisers. Even you.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
And was that in the script?
Right. There’s no script. As Stephen Nachmanovitch writes in his book, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art:
“An empirical fact about our lives is that we do not and cannot know what will happen a day or moment in advance.”
Ack! Everyone hide under your desk!
Or… realize that you already deal with the unexpected every day of your life, regardless of whether you’ve ever given yourself credit for such deftness. So, like I said: You’re an improviser.
Ah, but what kind of improviser are you?
“How you do what you do is who you are.”
Chicago improviser Joe Bill said that in a workshop I once took, and I bet acting teachers across the land preach a similar lesson. Let’s look at what this means. Imagine someone with slumped shoulders, staring at the floor, shoving popcorn into her mouth. Now imagine someone sitting up perfectly straight, smiling, while putting one kernel of corn into her mouth at a time.
Two people eating popcorn. Worlds of difference.
Now picture yourself as you go through your day — your morning ritual, your commute (if you have one), your time in the studio or office… running errands, interacting with family, anything else that fills out your daily life. What kind of character are you broadcasting to the world? What kinds of scenes are you creating?
“Be in the scene you want to be in.”
The wise words of Ari Voukydis, ladies and gentlemen, one of my teachers at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in NYC. His point: in comedic improv, when we find ourselves doing lame scenes that bore us and our scene partners, it’s nobody’s fault but our own.
Harsh? Maybe. But also: true. Bored in a scene? Do something different. Make a bold choice. Be in the scene you want to be in.
The same is true in life. Hate your job? In a rut? Well… the next move is yours. No one else can make it for you.
“It doesn’t matter what choice you make, as much as it matters that you make a choice.”
This was one of the first improv lessons I ever learned, courtesy of Washington Improv Theater‘s Topher Bellavia. I’ve been in comedy shows with some hilarious people, and they’ve been completely useless. You know why? They’ve clung to the sidelines, waiting too long for the “perfect” moment to enter a scene and say the “perfect” punchline. In the meantime, the rest of us have sweat it out, and we’ve made a show happen. I ask you: What good is being funny if you aren’t in the show?
(If a tree falls in a forest – does it make you laugh?)
The same is true in life: If you don’t put yourself out there — if you don’t make a choice, and commit to it — then, sure, you’ll never fall flat on your face. But you’ll also never do anything. All of your gifts will be wrapped up tightly inside yourself, where no one else can see them.
“You lose your fear of failure in a great way if you improvise a lot, because you mostly fail when you improvise…it’s freeing to fail and you realize that you didn’t die.” – Tina Fey
There’s freedom in realizing that you will, certainly, fail, at some point in your life (or over and over again, if you’re like most of us). So you might as well make interesting choices. In a scene, if someone says, “It’s hot today,” I could say, “Yep, it sure is.” Zzzz. Or, I could say, exasperated, “You say that every day, Satan.” I’m not saying the second choice is hilarious, but it’s a hell (sorry) of a lot more interesting.
When it’s your turn to speak… why not say something juicy?
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In closing: Being an improviser is about rolling with the punches; creating something from nothing; and doing it all with a spirit of fun. You don’t have to be funny or musical to take these lessons to heart. But you do have to be willing to approach your life with a spirit of play.
Are you game?
Photo above by Flickr user Thomas Cizauskas
UPDATE: The quote attributed to Joe Bill above should actually be attributed to Bob Fisher. Bill apparently credited Fisher for the quote in a recent Improv Resource Center podcast. Thank you to Nina Miller for alerting me to this mistake!