Improv Your Life
A lesson from stage about living in the moment
The lights in the TV studio blasted down on us with a heat level that can truly only be found in the center of a microwaved Hot Pocket. Just like the Hot Pocket, my goal is to stay cool on the outside. Feel the Hot Pocket. Embody it. Be cool.
In this scene, I was interviewing Mark, who had the added pressure of a camera shoved into his face while the boom operator, Larry, dangled a microphone overhead. Tom, acting as weatherman, was ranting about storm clouds off to the side. As weathermen do.
Okay, mayyybeee it wasn’t the most professional of television studios I’ve ever been in.
I had already pre-determined that Mark was guilty of a crime. My character’s sole obsession was his confession. Larry and Tom, both lacking the ability to read minds, also had no clue they were suddenly undercover cops. My verbal clues and repeated eye contact failed to convey the message.
I was in too deep to stop now.
I ended up slapping handcuffs on Mark and arresting him for whatever imaginary charges. A shocking turn of events for everyone, including the players, as they all experienced the twist together.
Our two inspirations for the scene were TV studio and police officer. As you can see, I combined them both in the most unexpected, creative way possible (that’s sarcasm). Roughly as original as a Big Mac with Fries. And much less iconic.
I was the only person guilty of a crime - violating one of the cardinal rules of improvisation:
React to what your partner is doing, instead of planning ahead like it’s a game of chess.
My breadcrumb trail of eye contact and way-too-subtle verbal clues were not enough to guide my partners to my intentions. Unlike Hansel and Gretel, they couldn’t follow them to the gingerbread house I had secretly constructed. Instead they were lost in the Forest of WTF is Rick doing?
I should have been thinking about where we already were, not where I wanted to go.
When done right, improvising should feel like our friend Gromit the dog here:
The same is true of life. It’s chaotic, the train could derail at any moment, and we’re never sure if we’re even on the right track. Hell, I feel the exact same way as I write this article. I think that’s a good thing (and so should you).
Look at Gromit’s focus though. Gromit has eyes only for his next move and the track in front of him. There’s no time for anything else. Gromit is present.
“Be Present” is a timeless piece of advice that has transformed into a clichè. Once a phrase is hung as rustic artwork in middle-class living rooms, proudly taking its place next to the essential ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ sign, it really starts to lose its zing.
But don’t rush to toss the phrase in the yard sale with the sign - it remains sound advice. And just like anything worth doing, it’s damn difficult to do every day. If you’re anything like me, you neglect to follow it roughly once every five seconds or so - and that’s on a good day.
You’re already familiar with the common culprits: work concerns, relationship issues, past regrets, future worries, and the modern King of Disruption, the cell phone. You’re thinking of your own distractions while you read this sentence, probably on your phone.
Forget about those things for a moment. Just let go.
I want you to focus on how that phone feels in your hand, maybe the ridges on the back of the case or the cracks in your screen protector. If you’re reading this on a computer, how does your desktop or mouse feel in your hands? Immerse yourself in the sensation, dig your fingertips in and become fully aware of what you’re touching.
Become conscious of where your feet are right now, whether they’re trapped inside of your socks and shoes or splayed out on the carpet or hard-wood floor. What is your posture like? We both know you should sit up.
The scent of my slow-cooked pot roast is drifting over to my nose right now - what do you smell? Intensify your gaze, like Superman shooting lasers from his eyes. Relax though - don’t squint. What do you see around you? See the fibers of the couch, the reflection of light on different surfaces. What do you taste right now? It’s one thing if you’re eating, another if, like me, you have the sudden urge for a breath mint despite a clean mouth.
Take a few moments away from this article but keep these heightened senses dialed in. Walk around if you want. Feel the space of the room you’re in and the air on your skin.
When you return, congratulate yourself for surrendering to the practice. Take stock of how you feel about it. If it was hard and you feel frustrated, let go of that. The results don’t matter. Just doing it is enough.
This is a simple exercise often used in acting. When you’re connected with your body, it becomes easier to interact with fake objects on stage. It forces us to slow down and truly see and feel what’s around us. You may have also done something similar as part of a meditation practice.
Now that you know what it feels like, you can do this whenever. If it’s difficult for you, using your eyes to laser-focus your vision is often the easiest path to improvement. Add in other senses as you go.
It works best while performing an action. Driving in the car. Cooking dinner. Doing an earth-shaking cannonball into the pool this summer. This move can be pulled out any time.
I messed it up in the opening anecdote but being present is a skill that improvising can help you improve. We all have days where we’re better at some things than others. Work on it. Consider trying an improv class. Most importantly - give yourself permission to fail.
Improv is at its best when we are in the present moment DISCOVERING together, rather than INVENTING.
The same is true in life. Open your eyes, feel with your hands, smell with your nose, taste with your tongue and feel with your heart. Then you can truly discover your own life.
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