Is Improv Really Therapy? A look inside the brain of improv students and other secrets hidden in the interstitial spaces of the improvisational mind.
When I look around the room and when I listen to the words that come out of an improv participant’s mouth I can’t help but wonder if I’m participating in some kind of group therapy.
Spontaneity, by definition, somehow bypasses the filters that keep us on track in our social lives. So if you say “rose” and I say “pink,” does that somehow open an inner chamber to my true character? What if I had said “thorn,” or “black?” What then? Denying that we are human is impossible, so it must say something.
The one thing I like about improv class is freedom. An improv class is a place of trust, a place where people don’t judge, they listen, where people don’t judge, because they don’t want to be judged. A place where people want to laugh if you lead them to it and a place where they’re willing to think if you let them. We are, at once, audience and actors, souls unclothed, disrobed, unarmed, naked . . . that is, if we allow ourselves to be.
There’s one thing I don’t like about improv class, and that’s the whole concept of forced spontaneity. Sometimes I feel that I’m more “improvvy” in my own kitchen talking to my 4 year old. In fact, I know I am. Songs (ditties, really) come pouring out of me (usually before I’ve had my coffee). He’s wacky, so that allows me to be wacky, not to mention the fact that you can say just about anything to a 4 year old and get away with it. They don’t judge you. The world is spontaneous. Anything is possible. They’re just along for the ride. If you create the model for what adults do (sing, dance, act weird) then that’s what they believe adults do. They haven’t anything to compare you to . . . yet. And so it must be hard for parents as the world creeps in to your child’s brain and you suddenly find yourself being judged. I know I’ve experienced it before with my older son, and mostly I shake it off as “that world out there, what do they know? Polluting my child’s mind with rules and whatever someone else’s opinion is of socially acceptable.”
So, in a way, an improv class is a little bit like kindergarten . . . a place where the teacher can tell everyone to walk around and pretend to be an elephant and nobody really cares what you look like because they’e having too much fun being an elephant themselves.
But what happens to the brain when suddenly you’re asked to be an elephant all by yourself while everyone else sits and watches you be an elephant? Well, you start to think. That’s what happens. And therein lies the problem. You start to ask yourself things like, “Am I connecting with the audience? Are they enjoying my elephant act? What else should I do besides lift up my trunk and make noise?” You start to become . . . YOU!
We start to think and that’s not really connecting, is it? No, that’s looking inward and listening to our little voice. And little voices usually aren’t very spontaneous. They’re sometimes downright authoritarian.
So then the challenge becomes this: whatever you do, don’t listen to the little voice. And I think about talking to my son in the kitchen. In the kitchen, there is no little voice. When you are all walking around being elephants there is no little voice. When nobody’s watching, there is no little voice. Freud would probably call the little voice the “ego.” The elephant acting kindergartner is the “id.” And the superego, well, that’s the subject of another blog.
The little voice, the ego, is the developed adult sense of self concept. Who am I (from a social standpoint, not an existential one)? What do I do? How do I act? What do I wear? The little voice says, “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing right now? Acting the fool?” When I’m in the kitchen with a 4 year old, life is a joke, everything is foolish. When an entire room of adults is given “permission” to be elephants, we’re all foolish. We suspend our judgements for a moment. But when we’re asked to act alone, the suspension of judgement becomes a personal thing, a personal challenge, an act of will, an act of letting go. We’re told it’s ok to be spontaneous, but we’re not sure we believe it. And so we question ourselves . . . we think.
Balancing the mind, I think, is an artistic underpinning of improv. Quieting the mind is an underpinning of Zen meditation, as is emptying the mind. But as I’ve discussed in previous musings, improv remains in the frontal lobe, it remains in the Freudian social realm, it remains, even though it dances around, in the world of tangible thoughts, memories, personalities and nuances of the communicative mind. Improv is a communication; and without a partner or an audience, it’s just a pontification . . . and pontifications can become lonely solitude and pensive aberrations of the human condition; and that’s not at all what improv longs to be.
Improv is stupidity. It’s slapstick, it’s a laugh. Improv is a dance . . . and it’s a gas. Improv is a punchline, where none existed . . . and it’s a joke, without resistance. Improv is an opportunity (to be and to become) . . . to be told, and to succumb, to be free . . . and to rebel, to be silly . . . and to tell the world . . . to go to hell!
Improv is a 4 year old, a stream of consciousness. A wistful thought, unfettered and unbound. A race, to jump in muddy puddles, and to act like elephants, and stomp around.