Thinking like an improviser

Thinking like an improviser

Many people end up doing improv because they saw THAT show, the show they could not believe was improvised, which kept them up that night wondering, “What is this voodoo, and can I ever be part of it?”. For me, it was ‘Lifegame’. The first time I saw it, the players interviewed the guy who cleans the windows of the National Theatre and turned his life into a play. As simple and as complex as that. I still get thrills down my spine at the thought of the scene where he and his wife kissed by a river as a quickly-built paper swan flew across the front of the stage. It was beautiful.

But improv is not just an artform. It is a way of thinking, being, a way of seeing the world and then interacting with it. A way of living your life. And a way of living which makes life more fun, easier and more productive.

I imagine that many of you reading this are confirmed impro-heads already. That’s why you’re reading this blog. So indulge me in what I want to attempt. It is a description of the habits of thought that make improv such a powerful tool. Essentially, I am trying to ask what improvisers minds look like?

(Of course there are no universals and every person is different, but for the sake of simplicity I have written these statements as ‘we’. Please free to violently disagree with me!)

1) We look at what’s there

“you can argue with reality as much as you like, but you will always lose” Phelim McDermott

We have what we have now and we are what we are now. On the simplest level, if I come in to a scene thinking my partner is the great God Ganesh, but they endow themselves as a squid, then a squid they will be, no matter how great my idea was. That’s level-one-class-one stuff. But on a more precise scale, what is that tick at the corner of their mouth? Why did they stumble on the word ‘deficit’. Why is that character sad when before he was happy? Those tiny little details and the use of them make improvised theatre feel rich and complex, just by us being curious.

One stage further and we look at what is being said behind what is being said. At what is really happening behind the words when we talk to people. When does ‘Would you like an ice cream?’ actually mean ‘I love you’? When does ‘Pint?’ mean ‘I need to talk’? Because sometimes it does, and it pays to notice that. It means that out interactions with people are precise and heartfelt. We connect with them.

2) We look at ourselves

We are part of the world, so in a way, I am saying the same thing here as the previous section. Our reactions to situations are rarely what we expect them to be, and can be complex, frustrating, unstable. The world does not often conform to our will or expectations, and we don’t conform to our own wills or expectations either. We can fight those reactions, but it is much easier to accept and work with what is happening inside us.

3) We know that what’s there will be enough

“Don’t wait for an offer to be made, assume one already has been made” Keith Johnstone

The only place we can start is where we are, and the only resources and people we can start with is what is there with us. When we started the Nursery, we had a chilly, leaky railway arch, a few lights and a couple of speakers. Of course we would have loved a beautifully equipped theatre with lights above the door and a team of ushers in matching waistcoats. But we didn’t have it. More importantly, we had no marketing people, no one who knew how to manage charity accounts or write a budget, no one who had ever run a company before even!

So what did we do? Just got on with putting on the nights we wanted to produce, got the audiences in, built a community around the space. Sure, some people found the alley scary or the chalk boards unprofessional, but if we had waited until we had the perfect theatre, we would never have done anything at all! We started with what we had, and two years and eight months later, when we had to move out of the arch, we had built the community and company that the Nursery is today.

4) We don’t fight with others, build with them

I hate Batman. Or rather I hate Batman stories. He does, to be fair, look pretty cool as he broods on a building in the rain, waiting to take on the Gotham’s oddly-dressed psychopaths. But here’s my problem: Everybody else is always wrong and he is always right. Sure, the media may call him a vigilante for awhile, but he always wins in the end. Cos he’s Batman. He’s the fantasy of the bullied teenager. ‘One day, everyone will see how great I am’. Batman turns against the whole of the rest of society and stands alone.

Improvisation teaches you to gain value by doing the opposite. By losing the self in the shared interaction, whether it be a scene, a conversation, or a game of scrabble. That’s why I like the Avengers. Sure, they have egos, they fight with each other, they don’t do what Nick Fury tells them, but they pull together in the end. Because in my experience of the world that’s how you get things done. You work with people, not against them, you find value in them, you make things work together.

5) We create

“The biggest risk is to take no risk” Seth Godin

Creativity is not just about writing poems or painting pictures. Sure, that’s creative. But what about a best man’s speech? Arranging a new kitchen? Even drafting an email giving someone directions to your house? All of these activities are creative. Creativity how you deal with any question or task which does not have a single specific answer.

We have a picture in the western consciousness of the tortured artist. The man (yes, it’s nearly always a man) too sensitive for this world, whose soul is magically connected to things we do not see.  A modern wizard who suffers in the creation of a masterpiece. That sounds unpleasant and lonely for him (yes, it’s always a him), but doesn’t it also sound little like Batman? Improvisers create in a different way. We throw out a thousand ideas from a single stimulus. It’s not that we don’t care about each one, we care deeply, but we can let go when necessary. The well never runs dry and the fear of failure does not cripple us because if one idea does not work, there will always be another. We do not aim to fail, but we are fine when we do.

6) We are never done

About five years ago, I did a course in Italy learning cabaret songs. Our teacher was a small round-bellied Catalan guy with an enormous smile and a Rod Stewart shock of hair. At the end of each day we would say “Dimani a la diechi” (phonetic spelling). For most of the course, I thought he was just telling us when class started the next day. Until explained it like this. Whatever happens in the day, be it the best work we have ever done, or a hot mess that no sane audience would sit through without throwing their drinks, we go to bed and the next day we get up and we do it again. We are finished when we die.

We all have to be reminded of all of these sometimes, and they can be a struggle to maintain, but that’s just part of number 6! It is a life practice, after all.

What thought habits of improvisers do you think I missed?

Jules Munns

Jules is the one of the founders of the Nursery Theatre. Jules is also the director of Impromptu Shakespeare and a member of the Maydays, as well as one half of Ten Thousand Million Love Stories.

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