What Can Improv Do For Me?

A week of hiking in Sedona and exploring the Grand Canyon can only lead to one thing: improv revelations. When I have time to turn things over in my head and view them from many angles, I usually end up smack in the middle of contemplating the world of improv. I think this is because improvisational concepts pair well with just about anything you can think of or experience. Of course, thinking with an improv focus inevitably leads to jumping around as you make one discovery/connection after another, so bear with me as I lead you through the canyons of my mind. Let’s start with a contemplation.

What can improv do for me? How do I get good at improv? Will it make me funnier? If these are your questions, you’re asking the wrong ones. In fact, any question is the wrong question. Improv is not about getting to the bottom of some profound mystery. It’s also not a self-help movement. Yes, improv can help you discover things you never noticed before and it can actually help you help yourself. However, these things never unfold the way you expect them to. You see, improv is messy and disordered and different to different people and even different to the same people at different times. Find me an improviser who has mastered the art and I’ll show you a person who has, sadly, lost hold of what improv should be. Its mystery and mess are what make it worthwhile.

Let me be clear, an improviser can become efficient and error-free at performing, carving out interesting characters, mastering numerous editing techniques and when to use them, finding and playing the game, and so forth. A set can be executed to perfection with ideas explored, heightened, and reintroduced at just the right time for maximum effect. The audience laughs at all the right places and goes home satisfied. But that sounds a lot like following a recipe instead of creating spontaneous comedy. You may get the satisfaction of a job well done, but what happened to the risk? 

Beginning improvisers expend a lot of energy trying to keep themselves safe in scenes; they ask a lot of questions instead of declaring their own thoughts and feelings, deny the other person’s reality, play without emotion, and, in general, keep the scene as far from the edge of the scenic cliff as possible. But highly skilled, paint-by-numbers veteran improvisers are too often doing the same thing, just with different tools of safety. Heck, I see improvisers play Big Booty safely. BIG BOOTY for goodness sake! Yes, BB can be mastered, but where is the fun in that? I prefer playing it recklessly without a 100% of my focus. That way, after hundreds of times of playing it, I can still get caught making a “mistake”. Don’t misunderstand, I don’t deliberately take a dive, but rather I let myself be silly and take chances (funny voices, leaving the circle, and whatever else keeps me from locking in on my number). Improv should surprise, above all else, those who are doing the improvising.

So take a chance and see where it takes you and your scene partner(s). The beauty of doing improv is getting the chance to take risks and live lives and say things and do things that we would not normally do in our real life. As long as we pull our choices from the realm of the real we are representing a reality that could exist in this world. Just a few days ago, we saw a guy dressed in a Cookie Monster (looked more like a blue Elmo) costume outside the visitor center at the Grand Canyon. My seventeen-year-old son had his picture taken with him. Since the guy in the costume was not beholden to some expectation in someone else’s head, he acted through his own reality. What did that look like? After I took the picture, he said to us, “Any donation would be appreciated since I am an independently contracted Cookie Monster. I am not paid by the park.” This happened in the real world. Safe choices don’t get us to interesting realities. 

Improv as Vortex

In Sedona, there are numerous locations known as vortexes that are supposed to have strong energies flowing through them. People hike to these to meditate or pray or simply groove on the idea of experiencing something special. Think about it, people hiking miles, sometimes up steep inclines, in the blazing sun to experience a powerful, positive, and even healing energy. Put down the granola and take off those hiking boots because you have access to the best vortex I know: improv.  

To do improv well you need to commit every cell in your mind to the present moment. If you can accomplish this than you have entered an improv vortex. The level of focus required can actually heal you (at least during the time you are improvising). Colds go away, sore backs are forgotten, headaches subside, and so on. It’s a simple matter of focus. Your mind is so busy with listening and reacting that it doesn’t have time to let you think about the other crap. So let yourself focus completely and see what happens. If nothing else, the stress of the day will melt away for a few precious moments. How much is that worth?

Mesa Hike as Scene Analogy

A mesa is essentially a mountain with the top cut off: just a flat top. As we hiked to the top of Doe Mountain, a mesa, it occurred to me that all the key elements of good scene work were present. Okay, fine, I have an improv obsession. I get it, now let’s move on. Each new switchback was like a new idea to explore because when you changed direction you had a totally different view of the same scenery. A new idea would occur and then be heightened until it was time for a new idea/switchback. Through this cycle of exploring and heightening, you eventually reach the pinnacle of the scene. 

Once on top of the mesa, there are many new views to consider. This is the reward for having made the effort to traverse all those switchbacks. When you’re in a scene, take the time to explore and heighten the ideas that present themselves instead of looking for something more interesting elsewhere. Eventually you will reach a natural conclusion that will provide a jumping off point (maybe that’s not the best word choice given the analogy) to other fun trails/scenes.

Last Thoughts

Maybe my reflections are a bit disjointed and messy. Maybe I should have played it safe and kept my thoughts to myself. Still I enjoy the thrill of sending you these thoughts, which may or may not be well-received. I took a chance and I don’t regret it a bit. Then again, now that I’m finished, I’m noticing that my usually sore back is starting to hurt again. Must be time for another improv fix.

Written by Jack Bisson

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