Vol 10, Num 14 :: 2011.07.22 — 2011.09.01
I sat in my friend’s backyard this weekend, soaking up the summer afternoon sun. Sadie and Lizzie tip toed out from their living room, bursting with a case of little girl giggles, and took their place in front of us on the patio. Lizzie started the music, and before us she became a tiny sugar plum fairy. Her little wings and skirt blew in the wind, and she gently tapped her sister to “come alive” during a lull in the music. Sadie jumped up and took her turn dancing, spinning, beaming. Her grandmother clapped, encouragingly, whole-heartedly. When the dance was over, the small audience was clapping and praising the little ones for their grace, their artistry.
I leaned over to my sister and said, “Doesn’t that remind you of when we performed Annie for our parents and grandparents that one summer with Tammy and Lark in our entry way?”
“You mean, that time when we left the stage and sang ‘Tomorrow’ from the closet, while our ‘audience’ patiently waited for us to return to the stage,” my sister countered. “And when you wore a sewn up pair of pantyhose on your head as a homemade bald cap because you were playing Daddy Warbucks?”
“Yes, that time,” I said, as we both burst in to hysterical laughter.
Reflecting on that memory as I watched these children dance, I was taken by the freedom that children easily assume. Children see no line between play and reality. Every moment is an opportunity for fun, for entertainment, for laughter. Children are encouraged and praised for creative play. And then, somewhere, somehow, we unlearn the art of play that came so easily to us for so long. Rules start to dictate what we say, when we speak, how we act. Suddenly we’re adults, very seriously doing the tasks that are required of us to earn paychecks, to fit in, to just get by.
While playing Daddy Warbucks had been an early introduction to the theater, I did more serious work with acting in high school and college. Then, about four years ago, I had a longing to return to acting. At a weekend retreat, I was encouraged to spend time reflecting on what had brought me joy as a younger person. As I tracked back through the years, I realized that acting seemed to be at the center of so many things I’d loved to do. And so, at age 36, I went back to school.
One semester, I took an Improv class. I knew very little about improvisation comedy, other than what I’d seen on Who’s Line is it Anyway? At the time, I assumed it was similar to stand up comedy. Being curious, I signed up.
What I learned in that very first class is that improv is an open invitation for grown ups to return to play. As a performance art, it is people acting, unscripted in front of others. What results is often a hilarious mish-mash of adventures and real life scenarios. It’s completely unrehearsed, with the actors all relying on each other to bring a scene to life. In many ways, it’s similar to the dance that Sadie and Lizzie did this last weekend. Dance and improv both rely on a deep trust in your co-performers, and require a dedication to being earnest and real in the present moment.
What makes improv work so well as an adult play form is that there are some basic ground rules. The actors need to know that they are safe and that they can trust each other. To create that kind of environment, one that’s similar to any child’s backyard, the actors all agree to respect the following rules as they take the stage:
1. Accept all offers. In the beginning of a scene, actors often define each other’s character by giving “endowments.” If one actor enters the scene and says “Hello, doctor!” to another actor, this is a simple endowment. Once an endowment has been granted, the other actor should assume the traits that have just been given to his or her character (in this situation, the actor would become a “doctor”). This helps the story move along. If someone does not accept an offer (“I’m not a doctor!”), it’s considered a block. While blocking can be funny in some instances, it’s frowned upon because it’s not letting the creative spirit take root in the scene. By accepting offers, the actors are letting the creative spirit run the show, and in doing so, allowing something to be created without their controlling it.
2. Make each other look good. This rule is pretty easy to follow; in order for the troupe to feel safe and take risks, everyone in the performance agrees to work to make each other look good. When vowing to make everyone look good, you’re also assured that everyone else is working to make YOU look good. This helps move a scene along, and keeps things funny and believable.
3. Be yourself and state the obvious. There’s only one you. When you’re standing in front of an audience, it’s easy to feel like you need to be funny, or that you need to concoct a line that sounds outrageous. The truth is that when you work too hard to find the next line, it often comes off as trying too hard. The audience can sense that kind of over-eagerness. The good news is that there is only one you, and no one else thinks quite like you do. When you say the first thing that comes to mind, it’s often the most genuine, and funny thing that you can say.
4. Celebrate failure. Undoubtedly, when you’re in front of an audience or practicing together, someone is going to say something that just doesn’t work with the scene. Or, they are going to just fail, possibly saying or doing something embarrassing. The actors in improv acknowledge that this comes with the territory. Instead of everyone commiserating about how bad that was, or rehashing how the scene deteriorated, the rule here is that everyone should just acknowledge the failure and move on. In our classes, the person who made a mess of something often yelled, “I failed!” and then did an over-exaggerated bow, everyone clapped, and the practice continued.
There are plenty of simple games in improv that get actors moving and thinking, and we spent a lot of those early weeks working on games. We’d throw balls around the room, make silly noises, walk like elephants, earnestly trying to remember what it felt like to play. Within the first hour of class, I’d feel the worries of the day melt away, and realize I was engaging in activities that were peeling off the years of institutionalized learning. Everyone in the class would throw themselves in to their improv work, freeing their minds, taking huge risks, all in an effort to act more genuinely.
After doing improv for a while, I decided that I would try to start following these ground rules in every day life. What if I accepted all of the offers people made to me, if I tried to make others look good, if I was always myself and could accept failure without judging myself and others? What if I gave in to the Spirit, and allowed the creative nature of the universe to help influence what I was doing? What if I just said “yes” instead of trying to control every outcome? I realized that instead of being like the restrictive rules of the classroom and the schoolyard, the rules of improv were freeing. They let me be more authentic, they let me be more true to myself, and I found myself feeling more comfortable in my own skin.
The irony of improv became that, while I had been an excellent student at school, I was now taking a class to unlearn much of the prescriptive, studious, measured behavior I’d worked so hard to master all the way through grad school. And while I was learning, I was unlearning. I was learning to play as I had when I was a child, and being encouraged and praised for doing so. And as I opened up more, and re-learned to play with an open heart, welcoming the Spirit into my life, I sensed that God was clapping for me offstage, encouraging me along. Once again, I was Daddy Warbucks, with pantyhose on my head, singing loudly in a closet with my friends, and my soul felt good.