The limits of improvisation

The limits of improvisation


One way and another, it has been a difficult year. The Nursery has come to the end of its lease on the Nursery Training Centre, left its theatre in Moorgate and had what you might call a difficult situation with a landlord at Euston tower. Coming towards the end of our tenth year, we find ourselves homeless and facing interesting questions of what the business is, how we run it and how we do it in the absence of the financial cushion which Meanwhile Use Space has given us. Plus, you know, Brexit and Donald Trump and the environment and to make the whole year even more fun, Heather had a late term miscarriage just after we had told people she was pregnant. 2019 hasn’t been great. 

I am instinctively a fairly private person, so even typing the above is difficult for me. I don’t think I am cold, but I don’t like to talk about my own distress in public. After all, I am a British Man and that is how we are taught to be. Behind closed doors, however, I have been having my panic attacks, waking up in the night, losing my confidence, wanting to run the hell away. You know the deal. Getting through (and even to) classes and shows has been difficult on occasions and I have often thought of what David Razowsky said to the class the day his marriage collapsed: “I need you to need me right now”. Being needed sure does have a way of pulling you present and making you engage.

Now in the grand scheme, these things are nothing compared to many people. I know that. I have my health and most of my sanity. My mother brought up three kids by herself and my grandfather was in the invasion of Italy. By comparison, I am very lucky. But this year it has been left hook after right hook after left hook and I have had some trouble getting up off the mat.

Now, being an improviser, and one that likes to take from the artform into life, I of course try to get through what has been happening by appealing to improv principles. I have tried to remain cheerful and reassuring around those affected by what is happening and be sensitive to their needs, both emotional and practical. I try to make the best of the situation rather than wish it were otherwise and trust that if I put one foot in front of the other, I will get somewhere. Do not deny what is happening, accept it and make the next move. Seems like good advice.

There is an improv exercise which I often do with beginners, and always when I am teaching a corporate class. It’s a classic, and if you’re reading this blog, you probably know it already. Two people tell a one word story back and forth, but when one of them makes a mistake, deviates, repeats or doesn’t know what to say, both players throw their hands in the air and shout ‘hurray’. Then they start again. Mistakes become opportunities to learn, staying live to the experience is the key. A beautifully human lesson for sure, and a useful thing to examine in highly-competitive environments.

In an improv class, with its quick and clean demonstrations and easy models of the world, learning to roll with the punches and accept mistakes leads to immediate results, to cheers when you brush it all off and start again. The feedback loops are fast enough that, assuming nothing goes terribly wrong, you will leave the class on the euphoric high of power regained over the world. Unfortunately it is not always like that in real life. It might be months and years of exhausting work to recover from something going wrong. The principle is the same, the timescale radically different. Besides, shouting hurray is not always useful when there are real stakes. Some things are just not hurray.

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Which leads me to the question I have been thinking about this last six months or so: what are the limits of improvisation? Or maybe rather, what are the situations where there is no useful improv response available? 

I think grief is one of them. There are sometimes situations where there are just no positives. How do you make the best of a miscarriage? How do you yes-and it? Sure, you realise again who the people you love are, and remind yourself of the wonders of the NHS, but ultimately there are some things you are just going to wish hadn’t happened. Not all bad situations are gifts. I may have grown in character, but I would rather have had a child, thank you. It would be pathological of me not to believe that. 

Unsurprisingly maybe, all of the above has reawakened an old friend of mine: depression. I am a high-functioning depressive, which means I can often manage to get on just fine without anyone realising that anything is happening. There is a balance of routine, exercise and eating your vegetables that keeps you going and makes it better, but sometimes you just need to lie on your bed, cry and watch five hour videos of people playing board games.

And being depressed around improvisers can be challenging. After all, if you are not having fun, remember, you are the asshole. Joy is a choice, and aren’t we all taught that being present with and for your partner is practically a moral imperative? (More on the morality of improv in my next blog.) I know I am not the only improviser to have what we might delicately call neurodiversity, and I know I am not the only one to have had Bad Things Happen. Being around the endless bits and cheery community of improvisers can feel agonising when you are struggling.

I have learnt a lot this year about fear and art and grief and change, and not much of it is possible to communicate in a blog. Some of it is compatible with improv thinking and some isn’t. Not that it contradicts it, just that I have been reminded of the importance of having a toolkit of emotional responses for different situations. Improv will provide you with many of them, but not all. And if you feel like you’re going mad, you probably aren’t. Ask for help, look elsewhere, miss a class where you need to. 

So notice what is going on with your classmate or teammate and maybe have a check in at the start of your session. There is a difference between finding the positive in a situation and managing to make a situation positive. You can’t force brains, hearts or lives to do what you want them to do all of the time, and you’ll be a better improviser (and human) for accepting that. 

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