The Soul of an Improviser

Epiphany on the F train

Riding the F train into Manhattan earlier today, I had an epiphany.

Or maybe the epiphany struck as I was walking through the East Village to meet a friend. I can’t say for sure. But somewhere, between Brooklyn and East 12th Street, the realization washed over me, the way obvious things suddenly appear above the surface: I have the soul of an improviser.

It’s no coincidence that my choice of reading material on the subway was An Improvised Life: A Memoir by the actor Alan Arkin. The book was a gift from my father-in-law, and if not for the title, I never would have picked it up — Arkin is fine, but hardly a favorite of mine. Turns out, not only does he have roots in improv (he was part of the original Second City cast), but he, too, has the soul of an improviser, and seeing it rendered on the page made me recognize myself in a brand new way.

What do I mean, exactly — “soul of an improviser”? I mean: from the time he was a teenager, Arkin was compelled in his art and his life to do things in a way that was fresh each time. The idea of performing the same scene every night on stage repelled him; what was the point? Call it an aversion to auto-pilot, call it a heightened attentiveness to living. Later in his life, he’s drawn to Eastern philosophy and religion, and the obvious connections between these bodies of thought and an improvisational way of living and working emerge in the book; namely, an unflinching openness to experience, and a lack of attachment to The Way Things Are Supposed to Be.

Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while, or who know me in person, may not find this epiphany of mine all that astounding. After all, improv has been a big part of my life for a long time, and I even have a business that applies the art of improv to life and work. Clearly, improv is deeply connected to my sense of identity.

But not until reading this book, this night, did I realize: We are a special breed, we improvisers. To be clear, by “improvisers,” I don’t mean “performers,” or “comedians,” or “musicians”… to have the soul of an improviser, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living; it matters how you are. Whatever you do, whoever you are, you fundamentally reject the notion of permanence. You embrace life as fluid, and realize the limitation and silliness of getting locked into one way of doing things, one way of being.

You realize, in other words, that life is improvisation, and that we are all improvisers. And unlike most people: you embrace this truth, rather than resisting it. Maybe not by choice, even — maybe you can’t help it (I can’t). It’s just the way you are. It’s in your DNA.

Does this sound like you?

Maybe you have the soul of an improviser, too.

Photo by Flickr user Bonnie Natko

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