Think back to midnight, January 1, 2020. For many, ourselves included, the previous few years had been a tumultuous time. Like others, we looked forward to what may come in 2020 to turn life around. After all, it was an election year, a new decade, a nice round number that sounds like the future full of robot housekeepers and flying cars.
That enthusiasm was quickly crushed by Covid-19. So quickly in fact that it is easy to forget that we were still in an improv theatre, celebrating graduations, teaching classes, and running live shows into March before the shutdown began. Even the beginning of the shutdown felt temporary. Locations throughout our city declared a “two-week closure” to assess the effects of Covid-19. Of course we know now that two weeks became three months, that the hopeful postponements to Fall became “sometime in 2021,” and we are still trudging along an uncertain timeline.
Even with a vaccine on the horizon we know life is a long way from normal. If we have learned anything this year, we hope that a new normal is not business as usual, but a transformation based on the inequities that have been highlighted by the virus and the social unrest of this year.
As improvisers, we are uniquely equipped to handle the ultimate “pivot” of our lifetimes. Imagine that aforementioned moment on midnight 1/1/2020 was an improv backline. We all stood, with a suggestion in our minds and a story waiting to be told and then BOOM. Some loose cannon jumped up from the audience, ran across the stage, and changed anything that could have been brewing on that backline. Now what?
How can we apply our improv skills and experience to take what 2020 threw at us and mold it into the art of life?
Don’t Plan Ahead
In improv we often remind ourselves, “Don’t plan.” Well, sure. It’s improv. By definition we cannot plan. That would be writing. That doesn’t stop new (and even old) improvisers from wanting a specific thing to happen. Walking onto a blank stage with another human, potentially in front of a room full of strangers and having nothing planned can be a downright terrifying prospect to a lot of people. It is tempting to have a line, an object, a character, a story, or something ready to go.
But as the old proverb goes, “We plan, God Laughs.” Only onstage, “God” is groupmind, and if it goes badly, no one laughs.
Ultimately, we can have a feeling, we can have wants, but having a plan that you fully expect to come to fruition helps no one. When you walk into a scene with a script, you will be disappointed at best and the biggest jerk in the room at worst. You go into a scene ready to discover, not dictate.
Some people may argue that having a plan, or beginning with an end in mind, is crucial to reaching goals in life. Having been an improviser for 20 years, I can say that I am more than a bit biased against plans.
Remove the idea of planning ahead and replace it with having tactics in mind. If you know where you want to go and have a few paths set, along with the best supplies to take with, you will be more than equipped to discover your way.
Now more than ever, we can appreciate that our plans can change, fail, or just prove to be not the best choice from the start.
Listen and React
When we bring an audience volunteer onstage to play a game, we give – along with the very fun game rules – the simple instruction, “Listen and react.” It is the most basic way to approach the mechanics of improvisation, and the mechanics of everyday human interaction.
All we are ever doing as we move through this strange world is listening, then reacting based on what we know, how we feel, and what we want.
Onstage, when you are listening to your scene partner explain that they are an alien who eats only Fruity Pebbles and they need you to take them to Disney World, chances are you will listen carefully and react accordingly based on how you think your character feels about theme parks. In a comically unusual situation, we are willing to listen hard because the information is all new, and we have no choice but to tune in, or we won’t have an appropriate reaction. Somehow, we tend to let that listening skill go when our significant other is telling us for the sixteenth time how to reset the wifi router or our kids need to explain how Pokemon works. When we assume the outcome, or we don’t care to know it, we shut off.
Between the global pandemic and our country’s civil rights violations both peaking this past year, we have been expected to listen harder than ever in our lives. And our reactions have never been more crucial.
Saying yes is the first and most important tenet of improvisation. When we say yes, we affirm our scene partner, the audience, and the reality of the scene. But wait, if we can’t plan, and we need to carefully listen and react, how can we just say yes?
Yes is not blind agreement. When we play onstage or in class, a yes is an acceptance of power.
Our partner offers us a piece of information, and we say, “Yes, that is true.” Because the other option is to say, “No…and now that I have told you the thing you offered isn’t good enough, I’ll have to come up with something better.” Saying yes moves us forward together onto the next discovery.
Saying yes to 2020 has not been easy, fun, or even possible at all times. So many yeses faded away into the land of made-ahead-plans and well-intentioned reactions. What yes are we expected to still say?
Yes, we are still here, still expected to live our lives, even when they are not the way we imagined them a year ago.
Yes, we will do the things we are told by doctors, scientists, and people who are unseen or endangered regularly to make the changes that need to be made so that the years ahead never look quite like this one again.
Yes, this is real, this is happening, this is true. And we can control our plans and reactions.
Happy New Year, Improvisers!
Yes, and we are all improvisers.