Improvisation As A Practical Art
How to reduce friction in life and roll with it.
Long ago, I took an improv class. It was once a week on Wednesdays and it was loads of fun. I’d get up on stage and do improv with aspiring actors. I wasn’t an aspiring actor, I was just there for fun. I can recall the first few nights how my jaws hurt from smiling so much. My throat was hoarse from laughing so much. That class was really one of the highlights of my life and I’ll never forget it.
One of the things that I learned in the class, was that the instructor, Chris Berube, was what they call a “fixer” in Hollywood. The writers might have a problem with a script and he’d fix it so that it worked. Berube had been running the theater for years in a little office space in Santa Ana. He had another one in Hollywood, too. And he told me a few other things that I still carry with me to this day.
Improvisation is the foundation skill of acting. Every other acting skill sits on top of that one skill. I wasn’t thinking of becoming an actor, though some people encouraged me to do it. I have nystagmus and other problems that I just wasn't ready to work out so that acting bug never took root with me. But I did very much enjoy being on stage and making it up as I go playing along with the others on stage.
Another thing Berube told us was, “Don’t worry about your mistakes! Next week, no one will remember!” I still carry that attitude to this day. The past is gone. The future is not here yet. Not worrying about my mistakes allows me to stay in the moment, to think in the present tense, to just let things roll. So I don’t worry so much about my mistakes.
But the one thing that I live by, that I really never forgot is this gem, “Never say ‘no’ when you’re doing improv.” The reason for this is that once you say “no” to someone during an improvisation sketch, they have to work around the “no” instead of just rolling with it to see where it goes. I avoided saying no, and I was somewhat self-conscious to avoid saying no to anything and to see what happens if I just went along with it. I always had more fun that way on stage.
These three simple principles don’t just work well on stage, they work very well in life. Although I do engage in long-term and short-term planning, much of my life is an improvisation. Improvisation describes how I found my wife, a few of my jobs, my first house, my second house, and two kids. Sometimes we run into problems with no ready solution, so we improvise and we create the solution on the fly. Improvisation is a foundation skill in life. That’s what babies and new parents do, too. They improvise.
In life, as on stage, I don’t worry about my mistakes. I know that I will make them. I know that I will remember them, but knowing that few other people will remember my mistakes (like my manager), means that I’m free to make mistakes and still live to tell the tale if I want to. I know that I will learn from every mistake, so if I go into a daunting task, I’m ready to make mistakes and recover from them. I don’t dwell on them either. I use mistakes as an opportunity to learn from them, not to flail myself with them.
And the last one is to never say no. I very rarely say no. I just let people do what they’re going to do (within reason — no abuse is allowed) and see what happens. I know that they’re improvising, too. I know that they’re winging it, just like me. I know that whatever they do, they're doing it with a hope and prayer that it’s going to work and it’s going to work out. Much of what I do is like that because I am keenly aware that I have no control over anything. I have no illusions about control over anything. Once I get past the need for control, then I become an observer.
What kind of observer am I? I am one who takes pains not to pass judgment (you may have noticed that I let that slide in my political articles — this one is philosophical). I am at most times, an observer collecting information, learning as much as I can without making any judgments. I am agnostic about everything, and I really mean everything. I’ve read enough about particle physics to know that we’re not even sure what reality is. I still have respect for reality, but I still don’t know what it is. So I avoid passing judgment as much as I can possibly manage.
When I avoid passing judgment, I am better able to improvise. By reserving judgment, I free up my mind to collect more information so that I make better decisions about what to do next. If I am free to say “yes” rather than “no”, am more open to opportunities that present themselves. If I am free of worry from making mistakes because I know that what happens in me, stays in me (rather than Vegas), then I am better able to appraise and take risks that could result in positive outcomes. These attitudes make up the foundation skill of life, improvisation.