Categories
Uncategorized

Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up

Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson

Here are some of my favourite excerpts…

The spirit of improvising is embodied in the notion of “yes and.” Agreement begins the process; what comes next is to add something or develop the offer in a positive direction.

==========

There is wisdom in all of us. A beloved game that I learned from Rebecca Stockley, a professional improviser and educator, involves inventing a new proverb by speaking it one word at a time. This is done by a group of players who add the next most logical word to what has gone before. Do this quickly without “thinking” of a good idea. When it is clear that the proverb is finished (and this seems to happen by a natural consensus), all the players put on a “knowing, wise look,” tap their fingers together in a prayerlike mudra, and say, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes …,” affirming the wisdom of whatever sage or nonsense aphorism has been invented by the group. It is very easy to teach and to play this game, and it often releases a lot of laughter.

==========

Substitute Zen-like attention for planning. When you notice that your mind is planning what you will do or say make a conscious shift of attention to the present moment. Notice everything that is going on now. Attend to what others are saying or doing as if you would need to report it in detail to the CIA. Listen with both ears. Substitute attention to what is happening for attention to what might happen.

==========

However, Eastern notions of art characterize this relationship between the artist and the work quite differently. The artist is considered the servant of the muses, not their master. The artist shows up practices carefully the strokes or steps, and then humbly takes his place as channel, as shepherd for the images to be brought forth. Ideas, songs, poems, paintings come through the individual but are not thought to be of him. On Bali everyone is considered an artist. Art is simply what one does, not who one is. A famous Japanese Noh actor told me that his preparation for public performance involved a quiet meditation that was focused on becoming empty. He was attempting to set aside his attachment to self or personal consciousness. Once he had attained this opening or sense of spaciousness, the spirit of the role could enter his body and use him to fulfill its purpose. How different this is from the Western actor’s habit of psyching himself into the character, of filling up with intention and motivation.

==========

The second maxim’s advice, “Don’t prepare,” really means to let go of our ego involvement in the process. When we give up the struggle to show off our talent, a natural wisdom can emerge; our muses can speak through us. All of our past experience, all that we have ever known, prepares us for this moment.

==========

Performance anxiety comes from excessive self-focus. “Everyone is looking at me. I am not good enough. What if I fail? What will everyone think of me if I make a mistake?” The ego takes the stage and holds court. This line of thinking is misguided, anyway. They want you to succeed, to do well. Rarely are you being judged. It is more likely that they are cheering for you and tolerant of mistakes or miscues.

==========

Performance anxiety comes from excessive self-focus. “Everyone is looking at me. I am not good enough. What if I fail? What will everyone think of me if I make a mistake?” The ego takes the stage and holds court. This line of thinking is misguided, anyway. They want you to succeed, to do well. Rarely are you being judged. It is more likely that they are cheering for you and tolerant of mistakes or miscues. What is the improv fix for sweaty palms and a frozen mind? First of all, don’t believe the voice that tells you that you “can’t” do anything. The notion that you are actually paralyzed by fear is a lie. You can move. You can change what you are doing. If you are standing, try sitting; if you are sitting, move around. Redirect your attention from the symptoms to something constructive. Don’t fight the fear or attend to it. That simply fuels it. Notice and accept whatever you feel, and turn your attention to doing something useful. If tears fill your eyes, wipe them with a tissue. Look over your notes. Focus on the sheet music. Stir the paints. See who is in the audience; name them or learn their names, if you can. Notice what each is wearing. Look around to see what others are doing. Ask someone a question. Count the number of people who are helping and supporting you; consider their contributions. Observe the room, its furnishings, the lighting sources, your materials. Breathe consciously. Smile. Laugh. Keep moving. Changing your focus can provide relief. And even if the sweaty palms persist, your attention is where it is needed—on what you are doing. Thus, performance anxiety can be understood as a matter of self-absorption, of misplaced attention, and the remedy lies in turning your attention to the act of doing whatever it is—well. (Or, if doing it well seems a stretch at that moment, then do it adequately or even poorly, but do it.) Think about your purpose instead. Fear is not the problem; allowing your attention to be consumed by it is. Indian Buddhist writer Vasubandhu pointed out the five universal human fears:3 Fear of death Fear of loss of income Fear of loss of reputation Fear of loss of consciousness Fear of speaking in front of people Vasubandhu knew that stage fright is right up there with our fundamental fear of dying. So, as improvisers, we notice our fear, and just get on with the improvisation. No big deal.

==========

These rituals at the beginning of each session had the effect of creating order and harmony. We knew what we had to do when we entered the space. Cleaning, and grinding ink, got us into the world of the art without the stress of creation. There was a calming effect (just cleaning, I can do this). These rituals were simple ways to show up; they provided stability. Ironically stability is a vital element when we improvise.

==========

Just show up. Make a list of five places that are your “hot spots,” places where the important things in life happen for you. Why not put the book down, pick one of the places on your list, and show up there?

==========

During my workshops and classes, I ask students several times each hour to “change where you are in the room.” Everyone gets up, shuffles around, and reorganizes themselves into a new pattern. As we move around seeking new locations within the same room, we help our minds to stay alert and avoid getting stuck in a rut.

==========

Aaron, a software designer, shared this insight: “I used to censor many of my ideas before discovering a useful one. Now I look for the obvious in designing user interfaces for my product. When I go to meetings with Development and state what seems most readily apparent to me, the design executives slap their heads and say, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’;—which is when I know I have a good idea. Before, I often searched for something clever or innovative —missing what was right in front of me. This maxim [seeing the obvious] really makes sense.” Try thinking inside the box. Look more carefully.

==========

“Close your eyes.” Once your eyes are shut, describe in as much detail as you can the immediate environment. Don’t cheat by glancing around now or studying the room with the assignment in mind. When your eyes are closed, point to specific objects in the room. Describe colors, shapes, and the layout of the room; include as many details as you can remember. Continue with your eyes closed until you can’t think of anything else to report. When you have remembered all you can, open your eyes. Now, close your eyes. How did your description match reality? What obvious items did you overlook? What surprised you when you opened your eyes? Look at your surroundings. Find three things you had not noticed before. Reality is rich in texture, color, and information. If you are good at observation, this exercise may help you see more of the detail. If you failed to notice very much, this exercise can stimulate you to observe more carefully. Were you wrong about some things? “I thought the clock was over the sofa”; “I could have sworn the carpet was blue.” Perhaps your mind added details or created information about the room. Even this can be good news for the improviser—to discover that our minds often fill in the blanks where memory fails. You may want to do the exercise often, to see if your attention improves.

==========

Domingo’s aha! came from a fundamental shift in perspective. Usually his mind was focused on himself; when he started looking outside himself, his experience blossomed. For those of us caught in a spiral of self-absorption and rumination, the redirection of attention outward can have a profound effect.

==========

American Zen writer Alan Watts, clearly an improviser in spirit, named one of his books The Wisdom of Insecurity. He knew that life is all about balancing, not about being balanced.

==========

“What is my purpose now?” Use this question as a weathervane. Ask it often, especially when you are anxious or unsure of what to do next. When you have the answer, act upon it.

==========

In Lewis Hyde’s anthropological study The Gift, he defines the nature of a gift as something that must keep on moving, and moving away from us. It is less important that we return something directly to the one who gave to us than it is that we keep the energy of the gift alive, in motion, moving forward.

==========

Make a list of what you have received from others today. Find the particulars. What unseen faces have been helping you today? Define both gifts and givers.6 Here are some entries from my tally today: “My husband took out the trash and recycling for the weekly pickup.” “Our insurance agent filed the accident report on our behalf.” “The postal worker weighed my package and determined the correct postage.” “A neighbor gave me heirloom tomatoes from her garden.” “The road crew is resurfacing the road in front of our house.” “My printer made copies of this draft.” “The electric baseboard heater in this room is warming me.”

==========

Who are your remote helpers? What person far removed from this moment (in time and/or place) has made a contribution with his work that benefits you right now? Imagine a distant contributor and trace the line of effort to the present moment. (I have borrowed this interesting game that you can play with friends and family perhaps when you are traveling.)7 For instance: The waitress who brought food to the automobile mechanic who fixed the car for the electrician that allowed him to drive to work to wire the Drama-Department building, which houses Ron, our administrator, who went to the shop to purchase the computer on which I now write this paragraph. Can you see that each contribution is a necessary link? My present comfort is in fact the result of countless acts performed by others. Interdependence is a reality. Understanding this can provide insight as we wrestle with the question of our place in the order of things.

==========

Practice thanksgiving. See how many times each day you can find to say thank you. Express thanks out loud, looking for variations of ways to express it (“Thanks”; “It was kind of you”; “I appreciate it”; “How thoughtful of you”). try this: Write a thank-you note or e-mail every day. Be sure to mention the detail of what you appreciate.

==========

The hardest thing to learn is not “how to juggle,” but how to let the balls drop. —ANTHONY FROST, Improvisation in Drama

==========

Improvising is a collaborative art, and when members of a group show up action naturally follows. We get energy from one another. What seems like a chore when alone can become a party when done with a gang of friends. Sharing work is a time-honored strategy—think of the quilting bee or a barn raising. Are there modern equivalents in your life? Amanda’s note: great language for Pro-action Café

==========

W. A. Mathieu’s wonderful resource, aptly titled The Listening Book, provides a treasury of simple games and exercises for those who want to be better listeners.

 

1 reply on “Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *