Improv for the soul

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I’m going to put some posts about reading up here. It is Bigimprov’s belief that improv is good for you. Keeps the grey cells firing, stops your brain setting in predictable tracks. Imagination is the repair kit of the mind. Imagination can solve problems, find solutions, open doors. So it’s worth working.

Anyway, today’s reading book:

Improvisation for the Spirit : Living a more Creative, Spontaneous and Courageous Life Using the Tools of Improv Comedy, Katie Goodman. Sourcebooks 2008.

And I’m looking at chapter one. The Spontaneous Self

If I keep my promise to myself I’ll be looking at other authors and practitioners on this site. Brace yourselves, you’ll be hearing the name Keith Johnstone a lot. I trained with Johnstone and he is the nearest I have met in improv to a genius. He is also heavily into “not trying” – be more boring, don’t try to be clever, as both of those are the enemies of spontaneity.

Anyway, back to Goodman.

In chapter one Goodman hits us with her four fundamental skills of improv:

  1. You must be present and listen carefully

Absolutely. All improv is made 100 times easier if you just listen. We train this constantly in group. We go back to the most basic beginner games over and over again, to drill this in. Listen. Focus. And listen.

2. “The Pink Elephant Rule”: don’t negate.

Normally we’d call it blocking. One scene member makes an offer (“hey look, there’s a spacecraft!” or pink elephant in Goodman’s example), the other partner chooses whether to move the story forward (“Cool, let’s go say hello”) or shoot it in the head (“no there isn’t silly, that’s just a trick of the light”) I’ve had it done to me. It is infuriating, it is insulting, it’s left the scene dead in the water, and it’s left me wanting to never go out there with that person again.

Don’t block (negate). We have to make a proviso here for the hostile offer (and they do exist). If you receive a hostile offer (one that seeks to ridicule or degrade you) then you DO NOT have to accept it. There are ways of dealing with them, we look at them in depth on the L1 beginners course.

3. Affirm and Add

We call this the mighty “yes and” and you’ll see it everywhere. Accept your partner’s offer (unless it is hostile, but even then there are ways and means) then move the story on. If you attend a course we’ll show what happens if you don’t move the story on, or if you don’t stay in the scene world.

4. Always be willing to surrender your plans

Known elsewhere as “bring a brick not a cathedral”. This is a big problem with more creative types, as they will work the whole damned scene out in their heads then try to drag their scene partner along with their brilliant idea. I have watched scenes where both scene partners have had a doubtless brilliant idea of where the scene should go and both have dug in and fought for their vision. Personally I think the facilitator should have stopped it and taken the teaching point, but he let it run and neither of them would budge an inch. Fascinating but tedious. And not improv.

I think some schools call this “playwrighting”. If you have got a wonderful sketch or scene in your head, save it. Go home and write it down, don’t waste it in an improv class.

Spontaneity is you experimenting. It is you listening. It is you being generous. Initially to others, eventually to yourself.

That’s me, not Goodman. There’s a time for planning, there’s a time for working out the fine details and anticipating every possible pitfall. These are fine skills. Wonderful skills. I want the person designing the plane I’m flying in, and the surgeon about to operate on me, to be really really good at those skills; but there is a time to let all that go and just let your mind dance.

The chapter ends with a bunch of spontaneity exercises. Nothing outlandish – she gives you a feedline, you come up with a bunch of responses. Which reminds me, we need to talk about:

Brain Freeze

Big heading. Important subject. This won’t be the only time we talk about it either. You are (I am quite sure) intelligent and articulate. If asked a question you can make a reasonable stab at an answer. There will come a time though, more than one, where you will reach into your brain for a very simple thing

and there’s nothing there.

Nothing. Blank. You no do words more no. Sentences? Hah, we spoodle on whatever you just said. It’s fascinating, but it can really freak people out.

Relax. It’s brain freeze. Everyone gets it. Deep breath, relax, doesn’t matter. If your teacher treats it like it’s a big deal get a better teacher.


Exercise: Spontaneity 1

I don’t feel right lifting Goodman’s lines. Below are some feed lines. Come up with four responses to each of them. Observe your brain. Does it do anything interesting? Does it freeze? Start arguing with you? At this stage we’re just building a picture of your own barriers to creativity. Relax, Have fun. Take notes.

Remember, four responses each. Don’t over-think it, don’t try to win any prizes (there aren’t any). Just have fun with it

  1. Why did you do that!?

  2. Are you agent 006 3/4?

  3. Oh my stars, is he dead?

  4. Are you who I think you are?

  5. Well, what do you think?