In my sixties, I did a number of improvisational theatre classes, until the pandemic hit. I miss the fun, but no matter. Life has become increasingly like improv. For example, last week, among my friends:
- One sees a woman, standing befuddled in the supermarket with a food coupon in her hand. She offers to help. Soon, the woman is crying in her arms, having just fled Ukraine.
- Another flies to Europe to photograph Ukraine then discovers that he is more needed feeding refugees in Warsaw.
- A third is diagnosed with dementia.
None of this is good or bad. It’s what happens as life throws us another ball and asks us to respond, to stay in the moment, to be ready to let go of what we thought we knew, and move accordingly.
I need more skill in staying “in the moment,” which is why I’ll probably take another improv class. For now, I’ve reconstructed some rules of improv that might be applicable to troubling times.
Sally’s “rules” for improv in troubling times
- Say “yes/and” and “both/and.”
“Yes/and” is the phrase improv-ers use to keep action advancing during a scene. Whatever your partner says, you say “yes, and,” and build on what they said. Saying, “No, and” or “No, but” kills the movement and fun. “Yes/And’s” cousin, “Both/and,” is a phrase that allows us to embrace contrasting or opposing ideas. “I have dementia” and “I have a rich, creative life” aren’t mutually exclusive when we hold them in the tension of “Both/and.”
- Think like an ensemble.
No one and no country is an island. We need each other. Resolving any of the world’s major problems (war, climate change, refugees) is a team game; no country plays alone. I work alone a lot; I can do so because I know I’m woven into communities that stretch around the globe.
- Make your partner look great.
The world would dramatically improve if we focused more on amplifying what is good about each other. Even as we acknowledge our differences, can we focus on the merits from a different perspective? Or just see what is human and good in another?
Appreciating the good can be so valuable. I’m taking an art class that includes people from around the world, who bring many different levels of art experience. In a competition-free environment, we support the good in each other’s work (which includes my very beginning efforts). Art schools are notorious for shredding self-esteem and killing the childlike joy that makes one want to create. Today’s times call for enhancing joy, making others look and feel great.
- Be present, not clever.
The world is full of clever people, but cleverness without depth and caring is hollow and can even be evil. Let’s practice presence, the ability to stay connected and calm in the midst of whatever is happening. In improv, as in life, what needs to happen intuitively appears when one becomes more present.
- Notice life’s offers.
Life is always making us offers, opportunities to act. We may not like some of them, like war, disease, or the “opportunity” for a tax audit. When we respond positively to an offer that’s going to be there whether or not we wanted it initially, we step into our roles as actors, with agency, creating the life around us. Life becomes our palette to work with, even if we would not have chosen all the colors.
- Focus on intentions, not outcomes.
Many situations in the world are complex. It’s hard to have specific goals to deal with them. Goals are fine as long as they don’t blind us to what is happening in front of us.
Focusing on outcomes can be like running down a soccer field looking at the scoreboard–you’re at risk of tripping when you’re not present where you are. With intention, I know that I’m playing a 70-year-old woman, who wants to complete her book, explore her creativity, and help her friends and world. With that, I step into the next scene and the new performance begins. Its outcome can’t be predicted.
- Let it go.
The world changes quickly. I can treasure the past, but if I hold on to it too tightly, I bog myself down. I can’t manipulate my way into the future by insisting on having what I want. When I’m not lugging the past or chasing the future, I have a better chance of being present with what is happening now.
- When it starts, it starts. When it ends, it ends.
One of my biggest challenges in improv is starting a scene before I know what I’m doing. But life doesn’t wait. I may have to join a scene before I have a clue what to do. Improv isn’t about mapping things out in advance. Go in, be present, and the scene will take off from there.
Endings also need to be recognized. In an improv class, a scene may end naturally when you and your partner know you’re done. Or, an improv teacher may close out a scene by yelling, “Scene!” Either way, it’s over. Life sometimes throws a message that tells us it’s time to move on. In an improv class, when it ends, you stop. Take a break. Change. Whatever will be coming next will undoubtedly be interesting.
- Celebrate no matter what. I once took a super fun class in Kentucky clogging, a dance class that felt like tap dancing in clogs. I loved the instructor when he said, “If you’re performing on stage and fall off, jump back up, take a bow, and say “TA-DAH!” Whatever our performance in life looks like, we can always claim victory. I heard that ta-dah spirit reflected in the video below by Seattle’s wonderful improv teacher, Matt Smith talking about “The Failure Bow.”
I hope there’s an improv class in my future. Or clowning, physical theatre, or storytelling. (Arne Zaslove, are you listening?) But, I don’t need to wait. Life is improv and it’s providing me with plenty of opportunities for performing.