I’ve been enthusiastic about improv for years. But I’m not that good at performing it.
I think it’s in the category of things where the more you do it, the more you realise you have to learn. I console myself with this thought: When I’m on form and a scene is working well, it’s a lovely feeling. And when it goes awry, it’s kinda interesting to reflect on why.
For me, a lot of unsatisfying improv is characterised by excessive craziness. Each player keeps adding ideas to the scene and you end up with too many. Panic sets in, and in response to the panic, everyone thinks they’ll add another idea. It’s as if everyone is throwing a ball and no-one is catching. When you can’t catch a ball the solution is to throw another one… the stage floor is scattered with dropped balls.
And your sketch about two friends in a bar ends up as a journey to Mars on a marshmallow motorbike.
Quite often, these scenes generate laughter, but it’s nervous laughter. As in let’s-pretend-this-is-funny-to-escape-the-fact-that-it’s-painful-and-we-wish-it-would-end.
When I’m in one of these performances, I have to resist a strong impulse to self-loathing.
As in improv, so in life: a lot of efforts to collaborate end up as ideafests with little sense of connectedness. You get classic brainstorms with loads of ideas on post its and almost no will to do anything with them. You get ghastly PR initiatives which are all soundbites and no soul. You set yourself up for over-excitement followed by depression. You get conversations that slip towards status contests; conflicts get escalated to absurdity and worse.
What Antony Quinn and I have been talking about a lot of late is how to avoid this kind of thing. He came up with the word unhurried and I really like that. Can we approach improv – and life – in a more unhurried way?
In this context, unhurried is not always about going slow, though slowing down is often a good idea. It’s more about getting on the same beat as our fellow players, looking for synchrony and connection, paying attention to finer detail. Staying off the sugar and caffeine, at least metaphorically. When we’re on the beat, closer to each other, I think we open a more interesting space for ideas… ideas that are are shared rather than built out of separate egotistical bricks.
Paul Levy has some provocative things to say on a related theme here: what is to be done about improvisation.
And The Wright brothers may have been on the same page.