You Can’t Inoculate Yourself from the Now

There is a Louis CK video that a lot of people have been linking recently. I like it, it agrees with my philosophy and it reminded me of something that I don’t think is addressed a lot when learning to improvise.

His point about letting yourself feel sad is really important, I think it’s similar to letting yourself feel unsure and surprised in improv. Sometimes it seems like classes or workshops are based around the idea of tricks, that our natural state is to be in our head and we need to shock ourselves or trick ourselves into living the moment. That’s not true. We’re born in the moment and we come back to the moment in periods of drama or intimacy, and we most probably die in the moment.

When I started I thought that moment of uncertainty was something to be avoided. Certain parts of society are about appearances, looking confident and giving the appearance that you know what you are doing.  We learn a lot by copying as we grow and it’s easy to take that behaviour on board without realising it.

A scene is like a conversation. Sometimes you reach the end of a conversation, and you both feel it’s been exhausted without having to acknowledge it, the air has run out of the balloon. It doesn’t matter what you do next, you can say goodbye or you can start up another thread of conversation, you can sit around in silence if you’re both comfortable with each other. If the other person said something earlier you want to talk about some more you can bring that back up again. What’s important is that you both notice that beat happen at the same time, it’s just an internal feeling that doesn’t need to be articulated. It’s the same for scenes, they have beats and when that beat ends you can finish the scene or bring something else new into it.

You have internal beats too. You can be improvising and run out of things to say. That’s just a sign that you need to bring something new up, or reincorporate something that happened before. It’s not a sign that you’re fucked, that you’ve forgotten how to improvise. I think that’s a learned mistake that people take on stage with them quite a lot. They assume that you can’t sit with that moment and let it sink in, that you need to immediately move to something else or be doing something to be good at improv. They run away from that moment of uncertainty and

I think to be good at improv you need to learn how to be comfortable with yourself. You need to learn how to stand on the sides of a show patiently watching and listening until you step up, without having to plan or desperately memorise character names. You need to learn how to react with good humour to your partners’ curveball and instintively accept it. Once you’ve learned that and your heart isn’t beating with fear at the unknown you have a lot more mental resources to spend on the technical stuff. You learn when to add more character or more details, or when to edit a scene and bring it back.

Sometimes people say they do improv to help them learn how to be in the moment. I think that’s the other way round. You need to learn how to be in the moment in order to improvise. You don’t paint so that you can see. You have to be able to see in order to paint. You can’t live shying away from uncertainty and then transform when you get on stage. You have to learn how to live with uncertainty and trust yourself, and then you take that on stage and improvise from that place.

Otherwise you are just jacking off to avoid your fear for a while, and it’s never really satisfying as Louis says. No, it’s not comfortable to face that fear, it never is and its not supposed to be. Chase the fear not the comfort.

This is something I say because I have done it myself, and I continue to practice doing it. It’s not an automatic skill, so it does take practice, but it just gives back so much more pleasure and enjoyment than trying to ‘solve’ improv.


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