The writing workshop I attended in Collegeville involved unstructured writing time each morning and afternoon (heaven) with group gatherings in the evenings. One of these gatherings was a workshop on improv led by Greta Grosch, an actor and group trainer in Minnesota.
Greta led us through a series of exercises that built nicely on one another. We started with games in which we passed various words and movements around a circle, then worked our way up to improvising scenes. Which sounds more impressive than it was. We are all amateurs, our group is somewhat introverted, and as writers, our creativity often comes after staring at a blank page or empty screen, not after a facilitator points to us and says, “You. Go.”
As many of you know, the basic rule of improv, is to yes-and. It’s a decent way to live one’s life: to build on what’s offered (especially if you can’t change it).
Yet everyone in our group struggled to move the scenes forward. It’s amazing how ingrained the word but is in us. We resist the suggestion our partner gives us because we think we had a “better” idea. Or we have no idea how to run with what’s offered, so we veer off in our own direction. It’s not about rejecting the person; it’s about retaining some semblance of control. Yet improv is about mutual discovery. You agree to be swept along just to see where the thing goes.
I’ve done just enough improv that it’s not excruciating anymore, but I still like the theory more than the practice. I’m intrigued by improv, not because it comes naturally, but because it doesn’t.
But every time I do improv there’s a breakthrough.
Last time I wrote about improv it ended up on Collegeville’s blog. That time I had this realization: people aren’t looking at you and judging you nearly as much as you think. This is very freeing.
My takeaway from Greta’s workshop was this:
Don’t be clever.
What stops many of us from moving forward is the pressure to think of something good. So we stand there, racking our brains for a zany line or action. The silence not only kills the energy of the scene or game, but it raises the stakes for whatever’s eventually going to come out of your mouth. People expect it to be awesome, a bar that we novices mostly clear accidentally and serendipitously.
I realized how much more fruitful it is to do something, anything. Just act. For me, improv isn’t about learning how to perform for others (yet?) but how to silence my inner commentator long enough to act intuitively. In the beginning, my question was “Can I come up with something clever?” I found it helpful to shift to “How quickly can I respond to what’s been offered?” A quick response is uncensored, almost instinctive. And it may stink or it may be funny, but at least something happens that moves the action forward and gives one’s partner something to work with.
The problem is, many of us know improv through Second City or Whose Line Is It Anyway? We judge ourselves against the masters, but these are people at the top of their craft. (They’ve also learned the forms so well that the scenes they build aren’t truly anything-goes. If you watch closely, there are jokes they fall back on and moves they make that, while not quite scripted, aren’t truly spontaneous.)
As a sometimes-control freak with a perfectionistic streak, cleverness is my enemy. It means I never make the initial move, write the first word, because it’s got to be just right. A life lived improvisationally means that you start. Don’t just stand there, do something. Almost anything will do, because that first move provides information you need in order to make the second move.