There are three fundamental principles to improv.
1) Listen: verbally and nonverbally.
2) Agree: accept what has been said or done.
3) Add: insert your voice or action.
Last Sunday, I took a free intro to improv class in Baltimore and walked away more certain than ever that God has a sense of humor. I prepared myself ahead of time, knowing that I was going to make mistakes during the exercises, but completely blindsided by the truth that resulted in my inability to think quick on my feet. “Stop psycho-analyzing,” the instructor said to me. “Just shout out the first thing that comes to mind, it doesn’t matter what it is or if it answers the question. The point is to push through the logic of your frontal lobe. Get rid of the filter that makes you feel silly in group of strangers. Just be. It’s the only way we’ll get an honest answer.”
An honest answer. I began to wonder how honest any of us are with each other thanks to our frontal lobe. How proactive are the decisions we make if they are not anything more than a sad attempt to control the terrain of uncharted territory? I learned just then there could be an advantage to being reactive: honesty in all its harsh reality.
“So Kristen, here’s your category. Let’s say you’re out with your friends on Saturday night when all of a sudden an attractive man walks by. Give me 10 things you say to your girlfriends as he brushes past. Describe him. Go.”
In my head, this was the easiest category I could have been given. I start spit ballin:
I could have just said Tall, Dark, and Handsome and been done with the exercise. But suddenly I had a mouth full of cotton balls and my mind was firing blank after blank of descriptive adjectives for what I found attractive in a man. Panic ensued that this was revealing far too much about my non-existent romantic life than I had intended, even in the safety of strangers who I would never see again. How long have I been out of the game?! The embarrassment turned to humility and I thought that if I were 10 years old I’d be crying my eyes out by now, on the black hollow stage that seemed as empty as love that never amounts to anything meaningful. How elementary. These were the thoughts that made me stumble over my words and this is where I was told to stop psycho-analyzing myself. I had failed to get to 10, stuck on number 8. So the instructor made me do it again.
I was the only one to fail the category game, and realized that perhaps I was the only one whose default mode of thinking is psycho-analyzing. Only I’ve never called it that. I’ve just called it my way of thinking, curious for anything other than what’s on the surface. Not concerned at all for what things look like but how they work. Not satisfied at all for what you can tell me but what you show. That if I could understand how you think, I could empathize with how you feel. And this is a very demanding process, I realize. One that requires uncomfortable vulnerability in order to be connected, but could also be extremely off-putting for those who just want to be accepted as is.
It seems I have failed more than once, then. A million times, at least.
It’s hard work to get to know people truly. Infinity harder to truly know yourself. Improv is a great way to make the process fun, which is why I was drawn to it in the first place, for myself. I got tired of asking myself unending questions that I would then answer on the page. I became far more interested in seeing myself live out loud, in real time, with other people. I was looking for an honest answer that stripped away any premeditated thoughts. I wanted a gut check. And God sucker-punched me.
My immediate, most honest reaction to the category exercise was shame, then disappointment once I had
psycho-analyzed understood my emotions. I’ll be 26 in January and for all of the things I’ve learned to build by myself, for all the adventures I’ve learned to be fearless doing, and for all the training and schooling that I’ve committed to pursuing–it’d be even more shameful and disappointing if they were only for myself. It would be selfish. Like a mouth full of cotton balls, it would be empty if I were unable to share. Which is why I plan to improv my life in 2014. I want to create and perform spontaneously without any preparation, certain that the past 25 years have given me all I need to act instinctively.
After years of searching for meaning and defining purpose, I want to return to the surface and accept what I see. I want to read and write in real-time, off the page and in every scene of every day. I want to listen fully, agree that what is said and done actually happened and refuse to question it. I want to add my voice to existing conversations, knowing that its presence can impact any story. If there’s anything improv taught me, it’s the collective narrative we share and how we communicate it. And I want to participate. But above all, I want my heart to be honest with me, without any words getting in the way of its beating, one murmur at a time.