Not long after I started learning improvisation, it became clear to me that it wasn’t merely training for performance, but also, training for life. At the core of its ethos is freedom – freedom to say what’s on your mind, to reinvent yourself, to act like a lunatic, to play like a child yet create material which moves adults, to step outside of rules and regulations and see possibility instead of restriction, to see the upsides of all the downsides and vice versa, and to laugh at yourself and all human folly. When I teach improv, I see people in a state of release, learning to trust their instincts and relate to others without the censorship that bedevils so much interaction in daily life.
Role-play has long been a practise for discovering different ways to behave. In the safe, held environment of a classroom or rehearsal space, students experience a kind of therapy, which, in not being named as such, encourages revelation that in a clinical setting might be pathologised. Improvisation is therapy-by-stealth, giving its participants an enjoyable way to learn practical tools for life, all of which emphasise the benefits of collaboration, acting in the moment, revealing your inner workings and relishing the journey. Though I’d strongly recommend doing improv to learn these lessons, this list of instructions or maxims will give you an idea of the side-benefits of the craft of extemporisation that may prove to be even more significant to you than just honing your performance skills.
In an improvised scene, if you don’t say ‘Yes’, nothing happens. The same is true of life. Saying yes leads to possibility, exploration, surprises, progress; to relationships, learning, excitement and satisfaction. A compliment I have always remembered came from a boyfriend who said ‘One thing I really appreciate about you is that you say ‘Yes’’. Even if I didn’t have a strong attachment to something he wanted to do, like going to a concert of a band I didn’t love, I would go with him anyway, often having a significantly better time than I anticipated, and earning much gratitude – and reciprocal generosity – from my beau.
The more you say ‘Yes’, the more you will receive. The more you say ‘No’ or block, the more critical you appear. Blocking implies that you don’t like what someone else is offering, and that you think you have a better idea – it’s a way to lose friends.
“Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy…..It is a f@*$%load of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.”
Dave Eggers, writer and publisher.
As Dave Eggers says, it can be hard work being open and accepting; it can be easier to be closed and unpleasant, especially when you find others to collude with you in a stew of negativity. There’s no shortage of mean-spirited, grudging people in the world, but do you really want to be one of them? Next time you hear yourself saying a knee-jerk ‘No’, take a look at what you’re turning down. Is it really a threat to you? Does it compromise your safety? Sometimes, of course, the answer is that it might: I’m not advocating sticking your head in a lion’s mouth or betting all your money on one spin of a roulette wheel. But far more often than you think, you’re saying ‘no’ (or ‘maybe’ when you mean ‘no’) when to say ‘yes’ would make your world a happier and more interesting place.
Improvisers are taught to go with the first thought. When you’re starting a scene, it would be contrary to the rules of improv to stand there, sifting through possible first lines before beginning. The audience want to see you dive in, (apparently) fearlessly and spin your material from whatever substance is to hand.
Professional artists don’t sit about, hoping inspiration will strike. Polly Morgan, a brilliant artist who specialises in taxidermy says, ‘Don’t wait for a good idea to come to you. Start by realising an average idea – no one has to see it. If I hadn’t made the works I’m ashamed of, the ones I’m proud of wouldn’t exist.’ Indecisiveness gets us nowhere. Often it’s more important to make a decision – any decision – than wimp and dither about which one to choose. As Polly Morgan says, if that first idea doesn’t lead to your finest work, it will be a crucial step on the way to your finest work. One thing leads to another: if you don’t start a process, you will feel frustrated and stuck; if you do, you will discover what you need to finish it, and have an interesting experience getting there.
Hugh Laurie, the actor and musician says this:
“It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There’s almost no such thing as ready. There’s only now. And you may as well do it now. I mean, I say that confidently as if I’m about to go bungee jumping or something – I’m not. I’m not a crazed risk taker. But I do think that, generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.”
Improvisation is about leaping into the unknown, again and again. This can seem terrifying to a person who hasn’t trained in improv, but the seasoned improviser knows the risk they’re taking is not as crazy as it seems: they have techniques to fall back on and trusted team-mates, and, perhaps more important than anything, they are not afraid to fail. In Chapter 4, I talked about self-sabotage and why we hold ourselves back. All the excuses you make for not doing something that seems difficult could be countered by the question ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ If you’re planning on making a motorcycle leap over twenty buses, the answer to that is admittedly not very comforting. But if you’re stopping yourself making a phone call to a prospective employer? They might say, ‘We have no vacancies’ but that’s not going to kill you. At worst you feel slightly embarrassed, at best you get the job. The more you take risks, the easier it becomes to face up to what seems difficult, and the more confident you become.
If you don’t risk, you don’t learn. Picasso said, ‘I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it’. He didn’t just paint traditional pictures, he experimented with form, colour, technique, materials. He was not just a painter but an illustrator, a sculptor, a ceramicist, printmaker and stage designer who lived to be 92, was extraordinarily prolific and loved his work. When did you step out of your comfort zone and try doing a new thing? The sense of mastery when you learn how to do something well enough to practise it to a satisfactory level is one of the things that life is for!
If you don’t risk, you don’t have adventures. There’s plenty of evidence that old people who think their lives were well-spent are the ones who went out and about and did stuff, not the ones that sat at home on the sofa, scared to move. You don’t have to travel to Outer Mongolia, but travelling away from home and familiarity to just about anywhere will wake you up and give you memorable experiences. ‘The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page’ wrote St. Augustine. The more experience you have, the more you understand humanity, and the wider your capacity for compassion towards yourself and others. As you explore outside, you enrich inside.
If you don’t risk, you avoid intimacy. Getting close to another person can seem a hellishly difficult task, especially if we feel we’ve been let down before, but building up a thick, leathery protective skin against the world is not the answer to your fears. It’s a fundamental human need to have close personal interaction, whether that be through sharing our thoughts and feelings, working in tandem, having adventures together, or making love. If we’re low in confidence or living in alienating urban environments we run the risk of loneliness and depression; the occasional chat in cyberspace doesn’t really cut it. We fear real human link-ups because we think we’ll lose our independence, but the truth is that we move back and forth between the need for others and the need for our own time and space on a daily basis, and that’s completely normal. If you want to avoid feeling suffocated by another, set some boundaries – like being clear about when you need your own company – but don’t stay in your cave when what you really need is to speak the truth to another human being whilst touching knees and being close enough to appreciate the colour of their eyes.
When it comes to dating, we often make the stakes too high, desperately wanting to feel an immediate ‘spark’ and for the other to be life-partner material. After a few encounters where the date doesn’t match up to our high standards or vice versa, we retire wounded and disillusioned. Try not being so attached to the outcome – see the date as just two people having dinner, with the possibility of learning a little something, or having a laugh. When we take the pressure off, it’s much easier to take risks – because the risk seems so much smaller.