One of the first things I say when teaching improv to beginners is don’t try and be funny. It’s among the biggest stumbling blocks you can give yourself. Not only will it take you away from listening to your scene partner and actually improvising together, the audience will sniff out your desperation like a rotting prawn in a cheating lover’s curtain rail. And there’s nothing less appealing than a rotting prawn in a curtain rail.
I would like to extend this (or rather shorten it) to DON’T TRY. Full stop.
I’m not breaking any new ground when I say that to do good improv you need to listen and be in the moment. That is a given. Every improviser worth their salt knows that if you are mentally scanning your fridge to see what you need to pick up from Tesco on the way home you are not likely to be doing the world’s best scene. But sometimes we TRY so hard to be in the moment. We listen SO HARD so that we don’t miss a thing. We go onstage SO DETERMINED to do our best work that we are scuppered by our own diligence.
Think about it.
The last time you specifically wanted to be brilliant; maybe you had friends in the audience, or an agent or producer came that you wanted to impress, perhaps you were in an audition or at a workshop with a lot of people you didn’t know. At that time when you were desperate to be at the peak of your game did you give the performance you hoped for? I doubt it.
How about those times when you didn’t care, when you weren’t even thinking. Maybe you were mindlessly doing a budget scene in the kitchen whilst knocking up a lasagne (surely I’m not the only one?!) and everything that poured out of you was effortlessly genius. So you thought, ‘great, I’m on it today. I’m gonna do that gig tonight and I am going to rock. Check this out everyone. See how much i frickin’ rock y’all!’ (that’s how I talk cos in my dreams I’m a badass maverick improviser who does things like ‘kick butt’ and ‘whoop ass’…!). And then onstage were you able to recreate the magical ease you had found when talking to the pans in your kitchen? Usually no.
But how can that be? It is the same day, I am the same person.
Why am I so much funnier in the kitchen than I am onstage?
Because in the kitchen you had let go of the NEED TO BE GOOD. You were not being driven by ego. You were just being.
People have often referred to great artists as ‘channelling creativity’. The idea that the music, the dance or whatever is flowing through them and they are simply a vessel for this. I have experienced this whilst improvising on a few brief but golden moments. Being in a scene and feeling the character speak through me without knowing what they are saying until I hear it at the same time as everyone else. Totally free from thought, from time, from effort, from judgement. These episodes of Zen like joy lasted for maybe a few seconds at a time but gave me a new sense of what ‘being in the moment’ really is.
As Mildred Chase writes in her book ‘Just Being at The Piano’:
‘It is impossible to be self conscious and totally involved in the music at the same time. Consciousness of the self is a barrier between the player and the instrument. As I forget my own presence, I attain a state of oneness with the activity and become absorbed in a way that defies the passage of time.’
The supremacy of the human race can largely be attributed to it’s ability to possess animal, intellectual and spiritual nature. The animal in us lets us survive, the intellectual lets us improve and the spirit is that untangible part that gives it all meaning. It is the part that centuries of philosophers have tried to unpick but it cannot be held, probed or quantified. Depending on who you are you could call it all kinds of things: your gut, your True Self, your God. This is merely semantics. So as not to alienate any belief system or get washed up in hippy dippy language, we’ll call the spirit Bob.
Over thousands of years of evolution (now I know I said I won’t alienate any belief system but come on Darwinian haters.. deal with the facts!) the biggest development was that of the intellectual part (let’s call him Dave – after the intellectual TV channel) Dave got us out of caves and into high-rises. Dave even got us to the frickin moon! Let’s be honest Dave is a pretty good guy and we’d all be f**ked without him. But over the years he’s got a bit big for his boots. He thinks he’s better than Bob.
Bob is the place where inspiration and creativity is born. Sure, Dave can write a song. He knows about notes and stuff. But the deepest, the richest, the best stuff is the uninterrupted flow that comes from Bob.
Because Dave has served us so well over the years, he doesn’t really know when to shut up and leave Bob to it. The reminder about your Tesco shopping list – that’s Dave. The low level yet constant judgement of yourself in a scene – that’s Dave. That secret clocking of where exactly your friends are sitting in the audience – that’s Dave. And the more you want to BE GOOD the more he tries to help: filling you with information, concerns, plans and crushing the channel of pure creativity that allows you to be totally present in the scene.
In ‘Zen In The Art of Archery’ (yes such a book does exist!) Eugen Herrigel writes:
“The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willfull will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen”
In the West, poor old meditation has a reputation for being a bit wacky. Something for people with a lot of time on their hands, who don’t wear shoes, who eat lentils and live silently in the Himalayas. But the physical and mental benefits of meditation are widely documented and it is something that can happily be slotted into modern cosmopolitan life.
It takes practice but the best place to start is to focus on the breath. Being aware of the constant inhalation and exhalation brings you into the simplicity of the present moment and allows you to focus on your body. We spend so much time in our heads, consumed by our thoughts, that our powerful core is neglected. By centering yourself with this focus it makes it easier to tune out the relentless jibber jabber that’s getting in the way of your brilliance.
Of course it’s not just a case of saying a quick ‘ohm’ and then being able to smash a brick with your little finger or whack out the sharpest ever improv scene. To becom
e good at any discipline, whether that be Improv or Jujutsu, takes years of training, practice and drilling techniques. But to truly master an artform is to reach a place where you transcend technique, where you trust yourself to let all of that knowledge go and just allow the art to flow from a clear and calm place.
So next time Dave is banging on about how you’re being really sh*t tonight or how it would be good to bring that character back because blah blah blah… just take a deep breath and allow yourself to tune into Bob FM. He’s way more interesting!