Happy 20th January. Which is pretty much the new year. This is a new year blog and if you prefer your new year blogs served at the right time, then you should read elsewhere. This is a new year blog in the sense that it serves that function. It’s a statement of intent for the new year and as such comes bubbling up when it’s good and ready. Which is now.
(In case you were curious, if I had released this blog in the first week of the new year, it would have been one of three things: an account of seeing elephants and hippos on safari, an account of spending two days with Heather in the high dependency ward at St Thomas’ hospital* or a listicle called Ten Things you Haven’t Done, but Definitely Know you Should that Would Make You a Better Improviser. And no one wants to read any of those blog, any more than I want to write them. So you get this instead.)
Taking a step back. I love improv. I dedicated my life to it about a decade ago and have been proud and delighted to be involved in the huge growth of the artform in that time in London. Improv is what I do with my life. It’s often my first thought in the morning and my last conversation in the evening. It’s fun and it’s satisfying and it’s a way of looking at the world that makes you healthier, happier and more productive.
Also, I am really opinionated. I have opinions on everything from England’s chance in the six nations to star wars to how to make dahl. I care about good tailoring, hot chilies, the environment and my nieces. And a load of other things. Most of the time, give me the briefest introduction to a topic and I will give you an opinion, theory or other form of pronouncement. Most of the opinions I have are wrong, changeable and ill-informed, but I have a LOT of them. Plus, I am a straight-acting white university educated male, so society tells me my opinions matter more than they actually do and that’s a hard message to unlearn.
So here’s my bit of advice, which I issue to myself as well as anyone reading this blog. Stop talking about improv. Just stop it and don’t do it and, instead, do anything, anything please god else apart from doing it.
Now some of you are thinking this is a listening blog. Some of you will have predicted that i am going to say ‘Listen twice as much as you talk because God gave you two ears and one mouth’. Or ‘Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply’. Or, ‘There is a difference between listening and hearing’. Or, ‘advancing your idea is less important than supporting your partner’s’. Or, ‘Ideas are easy to destroy, but hard to nurture’ (the origin, by the way, of the name ‘The Nursery’). Now all those things are true and you should think about them regularly, but that’s not what I mean here.
(NB: if you liked those listening quotes, you can guess who said them. Answers are the the bottom of the blog, but to reiterate, this is not what I am talking about.)
This is what I mean: In the pub after the class, talk about something apart from improv. Talk about plants, or politics, or puppies. When you see a pal at an improv show who you haven’t seen in a while, don’t talk about improv. Ask them how their job, family or home life is. Take out a backgammon board and see if they play (even if you don’t).
Improv is such a compulsively interesting and engaging thing to talk about that we forget that most of the time the talking about improv doesn’t make you much better at improv. It makes us better at talking about improv. Which often just means better at either hating on or loving a scene we saw. And neither of those will help us one little iota. Sure, we can blather on all night about exactly why a scene worked or didn’t work, but we are probably wrong. Improv scenes are subtle, rich, complex things, with many factors affecting how they were created and received. We may grasp at half the truth, but most (not all) of the genius of improv comes from the subconscious, which works faster and less linearly than our conscious minds. Try this the next time you are describing why something worked. Finish your grand thesis on the art of improvisation by saying ‘or I could be wrong and this could be a waste of all of our breaths. Now which country sounds like it could be a fruit?’ or similar.
There is danger and arrogance in thinking we understand better than we do. If we become erudite and confident in knowing exactly what improv we like and don’t like, and if we apply theories elegantly and persuasively, there is more of a shock when slippery old improv doesn’t do what it’s told. When the rules, theories and shapes which are so satisfying at the pub just don’t work because we are talking about something complex, fragile and fleeting. Like a snowflake, or a tall sandwich. If we are sure it will all work, there is further to fall.
Oh, an in case you were curious, here is this listicle.
Ten Things you Haven’t Done, but Definitely Know you Should that Would Make You a Better Improviser
- Turn up on time.
- Turn your phone off when you arrive in the room and unless you’re a doctor leave it that way until you finish the rehearsal.
- Eat, caffeinate and have a cigarette before you arrive (in order to make 1. easier)
- Wear loose fitting trousers or equivalent with a belt so they stay up.
- Take a class in a form or technique you’re never done before.
- Listen to your partner or something
- Take a yoga class maybe
- Stop reading this list and go for a walk
- I dunno, get a dog?
(Answers to the quiz in order are: Epictetus, Stephen R Covey, GK Chesterton, every improv teacher you ever had and me, probably.)
*She’s fine now, thanks.