A Year of Improv

October 14, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

It began as a fun way to spend a Saturday doing something interactive, and hopefully making some new friends. My first foray into classes at the nearby Carrboro Artscenter was the six-hour "Be Here Now: A Day of Improv." I used to watch the TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway," and thought it would be fun to try the improvised games they play. But this class promised a twist, as you might guess from the name--being present and developing more confidence. Marketing hype, I thought, as "Be Here Now" has become the most overused, cliché phrase among anything attempting to promote itself as spiritual. But I found that our teacher, Anoo Tree Brod, used some of the same language that my meditation teachers use. She emphasized paying attention to our scene partners, and saying "yes, and"--accepting whatever was happening in the moment. And after we performed a scene, she would ask us what we noticed about it. I loved the paying attention/noticing approach, which seemed to be a great complement to my meditation practice. And the class was an absolute blast. I wanted more.

That was last October, nearly a year ago. It took a while before my schedule aligned with Anoo's beginner class series, so in January I started weekly Improv classes. The journey since then has been nothing short of amazing. Since it's been so long, I don't remember all of the details of what happened when, but I'll do my best to convey a sense of what I experienced and what has emerged from my Improv experiences. The beginner class was amazingly fun. We moved from playing improvised games to creating simple scenes and characters, paying attention along the way. Our classes revealed the parallels between life and art. For example, one man in the class tended to use far too many words on stage, and he noticed that he tends to be very verbose in his everyday life as well. A woman who also used many words and played characters who asked a lot of questions realized that her boss at work had pointed out these exact habits before. I wrote a haiku that captures this discovery:

Improv stage creates
a microcosm of life.
Who is the actor?

This points out another realization that came from doing Improv, in combination with my meditation practice. Going into the class, I was concerned about taking on the role of various characters because it seemed as though it was not an "authentic" thing to do. Improvising is clearly putting on an act; the idea of being phony or otherwise pretending to be someone/something you're not rubs me the wrong way. But what I found is that becoming different characters helped me to see how arbitrary my usual "character" is. Each scene on the Improv stage provided a tangible example of how fluid and ephemeral the sense of self is. As I've written before, there is no "true" self or permanent self; the self is merely the bundle of thoughts, feelings, and experiences that is present in a given moment, but we fabricate a sense of continuity to string together the experiences and grasp onto the fabrication, calling it "I." Intentionally becoming a completely different self for a few minutes at a time helped me to let go of some of the grasping onto my habitual fabricated sense of self.

The class was not all fun and games, and I eventually ran into my own difficulties--or felt that they slammed into me like a runaway train. From the beginning, I tended to get anxious when it was my turn to take the stage. And quite often, I was unable to figure out what to do or say next. But after about two months of Improv, a few weeks into the Intermediate class series, improvising became painfully difficult. We were working on initiating in scenes--coming up with the first line in a scene to define the characters and the situation. I became incredibly anxious just thinking about initiating. And when I actually performed, I would practically freeze, often feeling completely "blocked," barely able to think or speak. Here was my art imitating life. It was bringing up the discomfort that I often felt in open-ended social situations, and many old worries and insecurities around initiating a conversation or interaction. 

It bothered me a great deal that I was feeling so stuck, and I was determined to get to the bottom of the anxiety. I brought more meditation practice to the class, paying special attention to the anxiety, watching it arise as my turn to go on stage approached, and trying to sit with the anxiety rather than deny it or push it away. The class provided a supportive environment and plenty of opportunities to practice. I never uncovered any sort of root cause of the anxiety, but over time, it no longer mattered. Through a combination of continued practice and paying attention to my reactions, initiating became easier, words and action flowed more easily, and the fun and joy returned to Improv. And just as Anoo promised, I discovered more confidence. The confidence came from two sources. One was the further practice of initiating and the positive responses I received about my initiations from my classmates. The other was watching the experience of the mind as I performed, and seeing that whatever I was feeling about the initiation/interaction/scene/response, it was only the momentary self that was affected by it.

I summed up this aspect of my experience in a response to a post on Facebook. Anoo was advertising another Improv workshop that she was teaching. A former/potential student commented that she liked the idea of Improv, but found it hard and nerve-wracking. Here was my reply:

Life can be hard and nerve-wracking! Improv can be hard because whatever you struggle with in life often shows up on the Improv stage. But the stage (i.e. class or workshop) is a great place to safely practice and work with the nerves and other difficulties. There are many fun times too, and it gets easier with practice. Then you begin to integrate what you've learned and practiced into your life, and life becomes easier and more fun.

The advanced class series continued both the fun and the learning, and the letting go of self. Then came one of the high points of my Improv year (actually, one of the high points of my year, period): a 3-day Improv retreat. I have attended 25 silent meditation retreats, which involved intense practice and have brought incredible openings and realizations. So I didn't expect much more than a fun time from a short Improv retreat. I was very mistaken. The retreat focused on vulnerability and pushing our Improv boundaries, encouraging us to open up and try things that we felt stuck with or didn't think we could do. It was a challenge, and sometimes uncomfortable. But the group was wonderful, encouraging everyone and having a great time doing it. We had a collective breakthrough one morning, during which everything fell into place in the scenes we performed. For a time, our worries vanished as we played together on stage. At the closing circle when the retreat ended, as I listened to the many great things people said about me and my presence and effort and performance during the weekend, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of being loved. This feeling stayed with me for weeks, as I returned to the everyday life of working and playing music and taking Improv classes and contra dancing, and forever changed my perspective on interactions with others.

Reflecting on the retreat and continuing to take Improv classes brought two more big insights. The first is that very often, when I felt as though I didn't perform a scene very well, everyone else in the class thought it was great. This showed me how much of my self-disappointment is based on my plans and expectations. I realized that in most of these cases, I was unhappy with my performance because I didn't act the way I wanted to. But to viewers, who had no idea what my expectations were, everything looked as though it went perfectly fine. The second insight is that when scenes truly did not go well, I could see in retrospect that they failed because I was acting out of habitual patterns rather than behaving as my character would in the present situation. As is so often the case, it comes down to the sense of self. It shows me how limiting my idea of "who I am and how I behave" is. And it shows how much momentum we have behind our habitual patterns. Breaking our habits of thought and belief and behavior is hard work, but so incredibly rewarding. This is the greatest lesson I take from Improv, and why I continue with the "hard, nerve-wracking" practices of Improv and meditation.


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