Why Improv? Because Everything Matters.

Starting when I was in junior high school, and for about two decades, my life was largely defined by what show I was doing at any given time. And then I got married, had kids, got a “serious” job, and moved to the suburbs. When I got divorced, I moved back to the city, and it wasn’t long before I had to scratch the itch that was performing. At the time, there were two reasons I chose improv instead of scripted theater:

  1. I had (and have) a life outside of the theater that I didn’t want to forego, and improv can accommodate as much or as little time as one wants to give it; and
  2. I love improv, and except for a few drop-in sessions in the old Seattle Mime Theater in the Oddfellows building, I hadn’t done it since 1986, when I was part of Northwestern University’s signature improv/sketch group, The Mee-Ow Show.

I’m not sure I ever gave much thought to why I love(d) improvisation. I just did. Since returning to it 2009, I’ve become nerdier about the form—what works and what doesn’t, what warm-ups work best for given formats, truth in comedy, rules and when to break them, why autocorrect insists on changing improv to improve—the usual improv nerd stuff. And I’ve come to realize that, while there are many things I love about improv, at its core what I love most is that everything matters.

If you’re like me (and a multitude of other improvisers), you make your living at one of those “serious” jobs. In my “serious” job, I’m a web developer. Also, if you’re like me, not everything matters in your job. Very few things matter, and the very few things that do matter, matter an awful lot. A conversation about how beautiful the sunset is over Lake Washington as seen from our 15th floor window is a welcome distraction, but a distraction nevertheless. What really matters is finding the missing semi-colon that’s breaking the code, and enjoying the sunset is going to keep me from doing that. That semi-colon is some serious fucking business. If I don’t find it and fix it, Acme’s not going to sell as many widgets tomorrow.

And that’s fine. Cool, actually. I like my day job. But, in a Venn diagram, the circle of things that are important to getting my job done is very small.

Not so with improvisation. What’s the first rule of improv, fellow nerds? Yes, and. And what are we yes, anding first? Whatever our partner has offered us. And what is her offer? Everything she just did. Not just the words she spoke (although that’s what we notice first). Everything. Her tone. Her posture. Her accent, her characterization, her physical actions, her physical placement on (or off) the stage. Everything.

But our partner’s offer is just one of countless offers in the space. Who’s the audience? What is the layout of the stage? Of the theater as a whole? What kind of tech is there? What’s the weather outside? What’s happening in the world at the time? How are we feeling? Everything we sense, everything we know, is an offer. Nothing is a distraction, because everything matters.

Here’s a game I learned from Stan Wells that I really like to help pick up on offers that we might not typically notice.

In Godot, the first premise is that the two improvisers have about the same level of knowledge of the world as babies. Looking at a chair on a bare stage, about the only thing the improvisers can say about it with any certainty is that it’s there. Not that it’s a chair, that it’s constructed of wood, that its purpose is for humans to sit on. Just that it’s there. It’s something different than what surrounds it. If we, as improvisers, don’t come to the chair with the idea of its purpose, its possible uses become limitless.

To begin the scene, one improviser should already be on stage. The other improviser should enter and exit three times, and then the scene should begin. And the improvisers are as babies, remember, so they don’t have language. These aren’t necessarily silent scenes, but there won’t be words in them.

Think back about that chair and its limitless possibilities. And now think of the other object on the stage that’s different from its surroundings: the other improviser. Ooh, that’s something really interesting. It moves! It makes sounds!

Play. Discover. With the stage stripped to its barest elements, those elements that are there, no matter how small, become hugely important.

My favorite instance of watching this game featured Dusty Lee and Diana Dotter. The space where the class was taught wasn’t a stage, but rather a large room. There was one window in the room. Prior to this game, I’m not sure any of us had given it much thought. But as Dusty and Diana moved in the space, they noticed their shadows on the floor. And they became entranced with watching the shadows and in learning how they affected the shadows. The truly brilliant moment was when the shadows of their hands—not their actual hands, just their shadows—touched. And they both leapt back, astonished. And then started moving back toward one another again, the shock lessening each time their shadows touched, until finally their actual hands touched.

Sounds really artsy-fartsy, and it probably is. But watching it was emotional and wonderful. And it was as simple as finding offers in things we often don’t even notice.

I’ve already written close to a thousand words here, which is stupid long for a blog post, but I could easily write another 5,000. But I won’t, because… TL;DR.

I’ll just say this: the more we open ourselves up to offers in every form, the more opportunities there are to open ourselves up to the joy in improv. An audience member coughs? It’s the beginning of the plague. A light goes on unexpectedly? A new angel has been born. Your partner accidentally says “locker ship” instead of “rocket ship?” Astronauts are nerds stuffed into lockers (which reminds me—mistakes are our biggest gifts, but that’s another post altogether).

Go. Play. With everything. It all matters.