Excerpt from Katie Goodman's Improvisation for the Spirit

WEEK 1: THE SPONTANEOUS LIFE

Picture yourself standing on stage with two other actors, in front of an audience full of unfamiliar faces. You are about to perform an improvised scene. You ask the audience for a location where the scene could take place. Someone shouts out “The Oval Office!” You have no script, no time to plan, no safety net, and you don’t know what the other actors are thinking. You have two seconds to launch in and perform a never-rehearsed four-minute scene. It needs to have a beginning, which establishes the location and the characters, a middle with a conflict, and an end that resolves the conflict. You need to be captivating, funny, and creative throughout. And the three of you actors on that stage need to work together if you want it to succeed.

Time to pull out the Tums?

This may sound like an exciting challenge to some of you, and to others like a recurring nightmare. This is my job.
As an improvisational actor and teacher, I work with several different teams of actors. In particular, I spend a lot of time on improv comedy with my troupe “Spontaneous Combustibles.” Performing improvisational comedy is an intense collaborative challenge. Every show is different. Sometimes we’re brilliantly inspired and occasionally we’re dreadful. Most of the time we’re solid and good, or at least somewhere near it.

What I have learned is that what we do and practice in improv can be used in life and relationships and work. Indeed, the skills required for improvisation are the skills needed for any collaborative or creative process: stay present, be flexible, let go of the goal, gag your inner critic, listen to others with an open mind, don’t struggle, give and take, trust yourself and the process, and more.  I have struggled on stage with all the same issues everyone has in regular life -- competing with others, wanting my own way, wanting to just once not have to make a group decision, being distracted and unfocused, not trusting that I’ll have a good idea, and having a great idea that doesn’t get used. The tools we use in improv are skills we can transfer to all kinds of areas of work and life.

How Improv Is Played

Many of you have seen the TV show Who’s Line Is It Anyway, or an improv troupe, perhaps. Comedy improvisational performances use hundreds of different types of "games" - we don't usually call them sketches or skits because there is no script. When my troupe performs, there are generally 2 - 4 actors per game, so we are always collaborating. The  actors share a vision, like any team or group does. Ours is to make people laugh. We all have different styles, different backgrounds, and often, different agendas.  This is high-risk creative work: high-risk in terms of our egos, mostly, but also in terms of pleasing the audience consistently. You are on stage, creating before an audience’s eyes, thinking on your feet. There’s no time for rewriting or rethinking. And yet, it’s not a total free-for-all. We do have rules. Each of these games has different rules and for each game we get different starting information from the audience so they know it's truly improvised. 

For example, we generally start a scene by getting the audience to shout out a location where the scene will take place, then sometimes we’ll ask for a pantomimed object that we have to work into the scene, too. Those are then the criteria that we have to work around. First of all, our goal is to create a scene incorporating these criteria, to follow the rules of the game. Then of course, we want to make it funny, interesting and dramatic by adding conflict and plot. We need to share the stage with others (i.e. I shouldn’t totally dominate), and then ultimately the scene must resolve the conflict.

At one show, we started with a couple coming home from a first date. The guy stops at the girl’s front door. The director of this scene yelled, “Freeze!” and asked the audience to shout out who comes out the front door. An audience member yells, “Her mother!” So, I come through the door and say, “Oh, hi Sweetheart, your husband’s on the phone.” The date looks shocked and the daughter has to now work her way out of the conflict that I created. The scene resolved with the date going out with the mother instead.

We have two tasks at all times: actively listening to our scene partner's ideas and then adding our own to complicate the story. The exchange and adaptation of information and ideas is the main task for an improv actor.

And, perhaps, for you. Nobody works in a vacuum. Life is one big collaboration . We collaborate with management teams, clients, family members, friends, PTA groups --  even deciding with others what restaurant to pick for dinner is a collaboration. We create organizations from scratch, and we help others to grow. Raising children is a challenging form of collaboration. We can renew our energy for relating with others by seeing our lives as a collaborative process.

THE TOP FOUR SKILLS OF IMPROV

Skill #1: You must be present and listen carefully!

Just last summer, I had a delightfully embarrassing moment when we were doing a game called Movie Genres. (I say delightfully because anything you do by accident in an improv show usually is met with peals of appreciative laughter.) The leader had us do a scene in the style of Foreign Film and I thought he said "Porn Film." Needless to say, when I noticed everyone but me was talking with French accents and smoking imaginary cigarettes, I figured out what was going on. But not before I had a leg wrapped around one of the other actors…
Listening is one of the most important collaborative and yet often undervalued skills in our society. How often do you really listen deeply to the person who’s talking to you? Do you ever find yourself thinking about what you need to do next? About another project? About the person’s appearance and all your beliefs about them? And yet you’re not really hearing what they’re saying.  

Listening is a practice we all need to cultivate. And people know when you are hearing them deeply or are not really present. To be creative with others and to brainstorm solutions, you must first understand where everyone is coming from, and to do that, you’ve got to listen.

Skill #2: The Pink Elephant Rule - Don’t Negate

In improv, it is a cardinal sin to "negate." Negation is when you deny someone's idea. The classic example actors use to explain negation is this:

One actor says, "Hey, look at that pink elephant!"
The other actor says, "What are you talking about, there’s no pink elephant…" This is negation. The scene goes nowhere. Plop. The first actor's idea is shot down and there's nowhere to go.

If someone offers a  tidbit of information to move the scene forward (such as “Oh man, I left the money we stole from the bank, um, at the bank,”) and I negate the offering (“No! It’s right here!”) it would do several things: First of all, it would be a power-play over the other actor, which is really not fun for the others and over time makes people not want to work or hang out with you. (Sound like any thing you’ve ever experienced?) Secondly, the energy of the scene would have fallen flat – if you outright negate and say no to an idea the scene comes to a screeching halt. And most importantly, I would have just blown an opportunity for a creative challenge, which brings energy and enthusiasm to our lives.

This is certainly something that most of us have experienced in the workplace or even with family. What happens when your ideas are ignored or shot down without consideration? It cuts off the creative flow. If makes you clam up. It’s not exactly inviting further communication in a relationship.  You’re probably not going to jump in again any time soon.

Skill #3: Affirm & Add

In a successful collaboration, we work toward "Affirmation." Instead of negation, we “Affirm and Add.” It’s called the “Yes, and…" Rule. You accept what your partner is suggesting and you add to it. It requires active listening and it shows you care about the other actors’ ideas. This fosters trust and teamwork, which leads to more innovation and enthusiasm for the work.
Now, affirmation does not mean saying, "Oooo, yes, I love that idea!" even if it's worthless in your opinion. It doesn't mean buttering up the other person and it doesn't mean putting your ideas away and being steam-rolled-over. This is very important to understand. Everyone wants their ideas to be heard. We don't want our teammates, our family members, our co-workers, or our friends to harbor resentment. Nor us, either.

In a recent show, we were doing a spooky Halloween theme story in which we had a long plot going about a woman who ran an eggplant farm (the audience’s suggestion). We wove the eggplant info into a tale of it coming alive and taking over the town. We were all headed toward a resolution in which we needed to call in a superhero, when suddenly another actor jumped in as a townsperson who created some animated parmesan cheese to engulf the eggplant and take away its deadly power. Now, this was not in anyone’s mind when we started, or even as we worked toward the other resolution, but it was much funnier than anything we had going. Had the rest of the cast not been open to that actor’s ideas, it never would have made its way into the plot. It really threw us all for a second, but we had trained ourselves to “Say Yes” to each other, and the result was delightfully creative.

In life, when you affirm, you are simply acknowledging the idea that the other player offered. Yes, I heard your idea. Period. Now, let's explore it, improve upon it, maybe take a sharp turn toward something else, but I acknowledge it! This creates an atmosphere of trust where others feel they can offer creative ideas without fear of disapproval.

At home, perhaps your kids want to have their opinions heard. Have you ever noticed how much it ticks off a four year old to feel brushed off, let alone a teenager? Listen and affirm what they are saying. Even if you don’t agree, it’s their perspective and for that reason alone it is valid. But you don’t have to stop there. Just say:

“Yes, I understand that you want to pierce your eyelids and I see that there are a lot of other kids doing it and I can appreciate that there is some aesthetic value to it that perhaps I can’t quite grasp due to my limited perspective and high standards of taste… er, I mean, different sense of style, but we need to really take a look at what kind of permanent visual impairment that could perhaps cause before I say yes.”
Something like that.

Skill #4: Always Be Willing To Surrender Your Plans

In improv, you must be willing to give up your idea if it isn't working or if the time to offer it has passed. 

Let’s say I walk into a scene fully imagining that I am the mother of the other character on stage, but before I can utter a word, the other actor refers to me as her dog. Okay, so now I'm a dog - perhaps a talking, highly opinionated dog who's just come from his morning shoe buffet, but nonetheless, not what I was picturing a minute ago.

You might be tempted to negate the new information simply because you’re attached to your original idea. But the better approach is to go with the flow and alter your course. It’s a collaborative process and can be so much more fun and interesting if you enjoy that about it and don’t cling tenaciously to your original plan.

For example, when I walk into an audition, the folks critiquing me have a preconceived idea of what they’re looking for, just like someone who is interviewing job applicants. But if we hang on to that image of what we think we want, we might overlook someone spectacular. It’s a fine balance between knowing what you want and being rigid. Having no idea of what you want is not particularly helpful, but having an idea and being willing to let it change is a better approach.

The same goes for meetings. You go into the staff meeting with a fantastic idea you are totally attached to and the guy to your right starts in on a totally different idea. A fight to the death of whose  idea is going to win is one way to go about it (and many people do) but that ensures one of you will lose (which means that could be you) and also doesn’t allow for new possibilities that could come about from the intersection of ideas. Collaboration in which you work with each other’s ideas really creates an atmosphere of trust, fun and inspiration.

When you surrender pre-conceived ideas and instead see new things as opportunities for creativity, you can discover endless possibilities and renewed inspiration.

TRY THIS: THROUGHOUT THIS BOOK, I WILL OFFER EXERCISES AS A WAY FOR YOU TO TRY OUT THESE SKILLS. HERE'S ONE THAT WORKS WITH THE SKILL OF AFFIRMING AND ADDING:

I’m in an improv scene and my partner says, “Hey, Officer! There’s a man with a gun in here!” This situation triggers my imagination (if I can remain freed up and unblocked) and I can come up with different responses.  

Here are several, some normal and some a little unusual:
 “I see him! Let’s go get him!”

“Oh dang, I grabbed my son’s toy gun by accident this morning. Sorry, can’t help ya.”

“This is a job for Opera Cop!” (You continue the scene singing the robber his rights.)

“Oh, man… not again. Come on, Ma! Put the gun down! We’ve talked about this before…”

Now you try one:
Here’s a new opening line. Fill in whatever responses come into your head. You can start with simple or obvious ones if you like. But after three or four responses, try to give a few that we might not expect – the unexpected can be funnier sometimes. Repeat the opening line each time and then quickly respond out loud before you write it down – don’t think long and hard. Just respond immediately:

Here’s your partner’s line:

“Hand it over. I know you’re hiding it.”

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Okay, try another:

“Don’t play with your food, Joey.”

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And another:
“Sir, will you be having tea this afternoon?”

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One more:
“Do you come here often?”

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(Creative responses to this last one might even prove useful…)

Journal your observations below:

  • What did you discover? Were you quicker than you thought? Slower?
  • Did you have more ideas than you’d expected? Less?
  • How many ideas did you think you SHOULD have?
  • What was your first reaction when you read the first line?
  • Did that first reaction change by the fourth exercise?
  • What are your beliefs about yourself regarding your creativity? Are you creative?
  • Do you believe you are less creative than others? Is this belief true?

If you don’t like these beliefs, write down a new belief that you’d like to have:

8.  How can you really deeply internalize this new belief? In other words, what would have to change? Would you need to have a new experience where you actually succeeded beyond your expectations of yourself? Take a comedy course? A writing course? Something else? Do you believe you need to have others’ approval to feel more confident? (More on this later.) What do you need in order to reconnect with your belief in your abilities? Write down the first step you can take to gain more confidence:

THIS WEEK'S PRACTICE: THE SPONTANEOUS LIFE

Each chapter will offer a meditation or practice at the end. Because these skills take some work, you might try the practices for a week to let them sink in, or perhaps come back to them now and again.

Journaling & Practice

What does Spontaneity mean to you? Does it scare you? Do you believe being spontaneous hurt you or be damaging in some way? Would being more spontaneous in certain areas of your life help? Choose an area of your life where you would like to become more spontaneous and inspired. Why do you think you do not act spontaneously in this area? What are you afraid will happen if you are spontaneous? As you go about doing things in this area of your life for the next few days, notice how often you are acting spontaneously. Ever? Are you just doing the same safe thing each time? Where do you stand as far as living a spontaneous life? What about this book attracted your attention?