Ever had one of those days when nothing seems to go right? We all have. And I’m sure anyone who’s been improvising for a while has had the experience on stage.
Oh, silly improviser, remember: Everything that happens on stage is supposed to happen. If you had a “better” idea you can go home and write a sketch about it later. Now is now, and whatever happens in the set is absolutely right. It is only when you begin seeing your own actions and the actions of your scene partner as perfection that you become truly open to all the possibilities contained therein.
So, I have to tell you a story. This story involves me doing a play and a moment of improv that occurred in the play that I am very proud of. I am bragging a bit, but hey — I think it’s a good story, and it illustrates the point.
I was doing a play called A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare — maybe you have heard of him. I was playing Flute, a character who performs a play called Pyramus and Thisbe with other laborers for the Duke and his guests. You with me? We are talking a play within a play, kinda like Inception. Good? Good. Let’s get down to business.
On the night in question, the night a little bit of theater magic happened; something did not go as planned. The actor playing Pyramus had a Styrofoam sword that he kills himself with. After he kills himself I am supposed to do the same. The Styrofoam sword that I am supposed to kill myself with was broken accidentally by the other actor. Ahhhhhhh.
There were 600 people in attendance at the show that night. When I took the stage to kill myself with the sword everyone was wondering what was going to happen. How is she going to kill herself with a broken sword? Everyone was worried about it, everyone except me.
I don’t know why I was so calm. Well, that is not entirely true. My improv training had prepared me for this moment. I knew I would figure something out. Even so, I was surprised at how calm I was. I picked up the two pieces of broken sword in my hands, the sharp pointy tip in one hand, and the cross-like remains in the other. Six hundred people sat there waiting for me to deliver my speech and kill myself. I took the two halves of the sword and put one half on my back and the other on my stomach so it looked like I ran myself through with the sword, kinda like that silly arrow headband Steve Martin wears. Stupid, right? Simple. Nothing truly genius about it. Well, the moment generated about five minutes of non-stop applause from the cast on stage with me, and from the audience. I am serious. Five minutes. I ran away with the show.
That moment was only possible because I did not stop to think of the sword breaking as something going wrong. I thought of the moment as gift.
Crapola happens. It happens in life and it happens on stage. Someone will throw a curveball your way. Something will go terribly wrong. How come the greatest souls and the greatest improvisers (I do not claim to be one here) seem to thrive under those conditions? It is because for them, nothing has gone wrong. Everything that happened was supposed to happen — and more than that, it was exactly right.
You see, the trick of improvising is not to be quick on your feet, or quick to think of something clever, but to be quick to accept whatever comes your way and trust it enough to build on it. It is never the choice, and always the commitment to the choice that really matters. Umm, I dare to say it is a little bit like faith.
Look, at the very least you must realize that whatever happens on stage is happening. Wishing or hoping that something else was said or done will do you no good. It is happening now, so you might as well perceive it as a gift, so that you can make something of it.
It is your job to see more in your partner’s choices than they ever did, to commit more to your own choices so that you see more in them than you initially thought possible, to look not at what you coulda, shoulda, woulda done had you the moment to replay, but to embrace what you or your teammates are doing, and treat it as veritable genius.
In order to truly see the perfection of every move made you must be supremely relaxed about the event of improvising. Part of this means letting go of the notion that there was a better, more appropriate choice than the one made. That illusion is brought to you by your pre-planning, the root of which is fear. Once you start to worry about what was said or done instead of receiving it as a present, you will be out of the present — see what I did there?
There are no excuses for passing judgment! The moment you stop to pass judgment on even the weakest, crudest, foulest choice is the moment you stand outside of it all and become a critic rather than an actor. You give the audience a window into your thought process and invite them to play the critic too. They can tell you think it is crap the moment you do — and they are all too quick to join you in your assessment.
However, the audience’s readiness to perceive things the way you do works the other way as well. If you see your partner’s actions, or your own, for that matter, as treasure, the audience will do the same.
It is a deeper affirmation of the heart of the creative process. It goes beyond simple agreement to an unflappable positivity. It can begin in an exercise as simple as passing the sound and motion. Watch people’s faces when it is their turn to create a sound and motion. Are they delighted to make something up and share it with the group, or does their face twist up like they smell something disgusting after they present their offer? You must learn to enjoy the process of creating, and to get behind your own choice before you can expect the audience to.
Take the next step with me to see how this improv philosophy applies to life. Ever hear people saying that those terrible things that happened must have happened for some greater good? It is a beautiful sentiment for a reason, perhaps because there is truth in it. After doing improv for some years I have come to understand it and believe it even more. Again, whatever happens in life, ain’t any use in pretending it didn’t happen. That is a waste of energy. Rather you should set about seeing what is usable, learnable and positive about the situation. Sure, this radical positivity takes a kind of faith, but in a way it is also grounded in what the real world has brought you to deal with. Terrible things can happen, its true, but there may be good in them yet, though it is hard to see. You might as well understand it as a gift.
Kristen Schier coaches and teaches improv in Philadelphia and has performed at improv festivals all over North America. She loves to talk shop and would be excited to answer any improv questions you send her. So send her a question!