(this is a sub-post of Learning from Comedians)
Comedy improvisation is a key factor in what comedians do to create material and performance – and it’s also the magical catalyst for fuelling self-development. By practicing your improvisational ability, you can really do a lot to develop as yet untapped capabilities.
Improvisation is a theatrical performance technique, but it’s also a common-place everyday human function; it simply means making stuff up as you go along – not knowing what’s going to happen next. It’s an extraordinary powerful tool, yet it’s also very ordinary. Many people are convinced that they can’t do it – but actually, improvising is what we all do every day, most of the time, as we go about our lives. There isn’t a script for most of our lives – we respond to each moment, even if we may have lots of those previously prepared plans and strategies to guide our overall progress. We’re constantly dealing with the unexpected, because most of what happens around us is unexpected, and cannot be anticipated. So we already improvise quite naturally.
Furthermore, we were all children once – and we knew very well how to play-act, to accept a playful role and dive into it whole-heartedly, to believe in it and inhabit it, then cast it aside and take up another role, without batting an eyelid. That was a wonderful way of learning and evolving for every one of us – and a crucial component of our development. As adults, we all still have that inner child potential somewhere inside us – even if we might now be ninety-five years old.
What happens when you improvise?
When you go into this mode of improvisational play-acting, spontaneously creating bits of new life – speeches, dialogue, events, interactions or whatever – some very interesting things happen. When you improvise, you’re obliged to dwell more in the present moment, because you really don’t know what’s going to happen next, and you don’t know what possibilities you’re going to be able to come up with. When you’re being improvisational with other people, you don’t know what they’re going to do either; so you’re constantly having to let go of your own ideas, because someone else has just taken things in an unexpected direction. There’s a lot of letting go here, a lot of going with the flow. It’s a very powerful activity for personal development.
In spontaneous improvisational mode, we also tend to be more true to ourselves. When in that mode, dealing with something unexpected or ‘winging it’, we will tend to fall back on our own natural responses and our individual, distinctive ways of acting or expressing ourselves. If we practice this a lot, it will become an established habit – our ‘default setting’. And if we’re fully preoccupied with this process, living it fully, we will rely less heavily on imitating other people or comparing ourselves with other people – we will be more ourselves. Through practicing spontaneity, we also become more creative, more able to come up with imaginative stuff. The reality is that we each have within us an infinite, inexhaustible and instantly accessible reservoir of creative ideas and possibilities; but most of us are blocking creative thoughts and possibilities most of the time, rather than permitting them to be expressed and brought into reality in a spontaneous manner – we are being too controlled.
People who are new to conscious practice of improvisation are always surprised when they begin to get the hang of it – surprised to find it’s easier than they thought it would be. That’s because it doesn’t really mean doing anything special that you weren’t doing before; it’s more to do with stopping some other patterns – getting away from that blocking habit, getting obstacles of habit out of your way. If you can enter into the process fully enough, you can drop our habit of judging and comparing yourself – stop wondering so much of the time whether you’re performing well, or being funny or clever or better than someone else, or whether you’re failing or looking stupid or being ridiculous. You quickly learn to leave off over-doing these limiting habits. “Yes” is the key word in improvisation.
When you’re practicing improvisation as a conscious performance activity, the magical thing is that wonderful things can arise naturally and organically, without your particularly trying – wonderful things like surreal humour, moments of poignant drama, compelling and authentic stories, revelations of the extraordinariness of the human organism. People think that this should be incredibly scary, but it isn’t. If we follow certain simple guidelines, and stop doing those things that get in the way, creative improvisation is actually rather easy. Practicing drama improvisation, you suddenly notice that you’re making up comedy and drama out of nothing, on the spur of the moment, in any one of a number of random formats – an observational stand-up mini-routine perhaps, or a surreal monologue, a spontaneous double-act number or a strange but interesting sketch created with others. You may well be a complete beginner; you know you’re pushing back your boundaries, but it isn’t so terribly scary; in fact it’s quite a buzz – exhilarating and liberating, even addictive.
Improvisation for life
Developing yourself in this way is not necessarily about acquiring the ability to be a comedian, or even to perform. As soon as you realise you can do this sort of thing, it’s going to revolutionise your way of being in the world. You’ll naturally be more confident, more effective and engaging, more comfortable in presenting yourself and in handling emotions, and more trusting of our capacity to deal with the unexpected in life – in short, more trusting of yourself. You can also become more comfortable in interacting with others, more effective at communication, and better at co-operation and teamwork.
This is extremely profound stuff; being able to be your true self more of the time has got to be an improvement, hasn’t it? It’s all practice for life. At the same time, it’s also fun – and we all learn and develop more quickly when we’re having fun. That’s why the child-like state of natural improvisational playfulness is so important and relevant – children are naturally and unselfconsciously spontaneous and improvisational, and it’s no coincidence that your childhood was when you did your deepest, quickest and most intensive learning. So let’s carry on with that, even into old age!
Learning from comedians: Spontaneity