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Improv 3

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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.

Improv 1

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First of all, the brain is an improv machine.  Well, ok, it’s sort of passé to use the metaphor of machine for the brain now that we’re in the 21st century, so let’s just say, the brain is a very spontaneous thing, constantly registering and reacting to the environmental data that bombards our person from the moment we awaken in the morning to the moment we awaken the next morning.  

But if there’s one thing I know about improvisational comedy, it’s that I know nothing about improv.  Well, that’s not exactly true either.  A couple of days ago I decided to sign up for an improv Meetup near my home outside of Philadelphia.  So I did, and I went to my first ever Meetup to begin my new career as an improv comedian.  In describing myself to the group of 4 adults and one 8 year old, I suggested that I used to do improv when I was 8 but took about 40 years off.

I really wasn’t lying because I remember distinctly my early days of standup and improv in my third grade classroom.  My jokes were spur of the moment and based upon the dialogue (or monologue) going on at the time.  The funnier the jokes, the more the children laughed, the more chaos I created, the more trouble befell me.  Hey, it was worth it.  I was a masochistic class clown, willing to suffer the pain for the pleasure of the moment.  I prayed at the alter of hilarity.  I was a neuro-daredevil, seeking comic relief in the dungeons and canyons of authoritarian rigor, ever at odds with conformity enforcement, treading a razor thin edge between quiet tolerance, forgiveness and banishment to the principal’s office.  So you see, this is how my improv career began and ended in third grade (well, it didn’t really end in third grade but it slowly degraded over the years until there were no classrooms left to disrupt, no spontaneous gaps in thought in which to insert unexpected punchlines, no forgiving teachers, only unamused professors or intolerant bosses).  I was supposed to mature . . . and so I did, more or less; and the spontaneity of life abated.

So much can be said about improv, so much can be said before I’ve even taken my second class.  In fact, I was thinking about the act of writing a blog about improv and I was thinking that writing itself is really improv.  You see, no one sits down to write a blog or a story or a book and has the entire thing in his/her head just waiting to get out onto the paper.  Writing is the journey, the evolution, the discovery and the creation of the story, the book, the blog.  Tying the end to the beginning happens spontaneously but the end cannot be foreseen until it is stumbled upon.  Here I am in the middle of this first entry, there are many things that I will or could describe, the neuroscience of spontaneous thought, the Zen nature of the empty mind and how it relates to improvisational creativity, creativity itself and how it manifests in comedic theatre, etc., etc., etc., (someone once told me that writing etc. more than once is redundant, but I think redundancy is funny, especially when you do it over and over).

So where was I?  Oh yea, the possibilities for writing about improv are endless; so that’s why I’m writing this blog.  I want to record the journey of my discovery.  I want to try to explain what I think I know about improv and how it relates to the brain, Zen Buddhism, creativity, other art forms, social psychology, comedy, nonlinear mathematics and a bunch of other stuff.  Then I want to just do it and see what I discover, see what insight I have, see what it teaches me about myself and about others.

Before I opened the door to the apartment where the Meetup was held, I was anticipating what might occur.  There might be a sort of an “introduce yourself” period where people go around the room and talk about themselves and why they signed up for the Meetup.  I was thinking that I might be asked “Why did you sign up for the Improv Meetup?” or “What do you want to get out of the Meetup?”  So I put a little thought into this and I decided that my answer would be, “I signed up to learn.”  You see, after I had thought about all of the other possible reasons I might give, the one that made the most wholistic sense to me was the fact that I chose Improv in order to learn.  I want to learn about this art form and I want to learn about what it does to the mind when one practices this art form.  I want to learn how to do improv better and I want to experience the improvement that comes with practice.  You see, for some reason, I believe that improv is truly the essence of humanity.  Sure, sometimes it’s funny, but that’s a particular genre, I believe (and one that I’m certainly attracted to). But improv can also be dramatic, sad, angry, esoteric.  And improv can also be competitive.  And improv is also a generic term for what we all do every day of our lives: we “improvise.”  Whether we are working, cooking, playing, or engaging in mundane activities, there are infinite ways in which we improvise every day to solve problems, deal with situations, engage other human beings.  We guesstimate, we anticipate, we predict.  That’s what the brain does.  When we are children, we have fewer limitations, we act and we react and we are spontaneous.  We are creative and we talk and we listen and we respond and we engage and we dance in a cosmic dance with each other and with the universe.  As we age, we curb our thoughts and our tongue.  We parse our words, we watch our step, we learn from harsh lessons and painful feedback.  We become less spontaneous and less willing to take risk.  We know that certain actions will beget equal and opposite reactions.  So we are careful.  In some ways this is valuable; it allows us to function in a peaceful, modern society. In other ways it’s constraining and limits our growth and our potential.  We need to strike a balance and my balanceometer led me to improv as a way to break out of the box, so to speak, as a way to find a place to let go and to explore.  You see, for me, it’s about exploration.  I’m an explorer; and along this journey of life I seek to find treasure.  Many of the treasures I seek are what you might call “insights” or “aha moments.” I call them neural connections.  I seek neural connections that shed light on an area of unexplained relationships, neuro-psychological relationships, nonlinear mathematical relationships, socio-political relationships, Zen Buddhist philosophies as they relate to neuro-socio and neuro-psychological relationships, etc., etc., etc.

So that’s it for now, I guess. This is just a beginning.  Later we’ll continue to explore more about what we know about the brain, Zen Buddhism and nonlinear mathematics. And when we achieve new insights, we’ll try to relate them to what we know and suggest what they might reveal.  In the end, we’ll have an accounting of a journey of discovery that may lead a reader to make new discoveries of her own.  Constantly evolving we are, constantly learning, constantly growing, constantly adapting, constantly improvising.  I hope you join me on this journey into “Improv.”

 

Thank you : )