July 5, 2012

The Improvisation that is your Life.


Some core principles of improv (and life!)

Whether you are aware of it or not, your life is and has always been an improvisation. Think about it. Were you ever given a script?  I sure wasn’t. Do you have a script today? Chances are, you’re making it up as you go along.

Even if you do have a script—perhaps you’re a waiter in a restaurant where you say basically the same things many times during a shift, or a barista, a real estate agent, a cab driver, a psychotherapist, a doctor. Perhaps you say the same things many times a day to different people. Even then, the delivery of the lines is different each time.

The same sequence of words can be spoken in an infinite variety of ways, with an infinite variety of intentions. There is an element of improvisation to even the most scripted behaviors in our lives.

How many ways are there to say “I love you?”

But most of life is entirely unscripted. From moment to moment, you choose exactly what kind of life you are living. You are creating a work of art. You are a work of art. Are you pleased with your creation so far?

When we are really awake, in the moment, responding to life as it happens, we are improvising. In improvisational theater, it often seems to the casual onlooker as if the players are “making it up as they go along,” and in a sense they are. But what many people do not know is that there are well-developed principles that guide well done improvisation.

Most truly skilled improvisers have spent thousands of hours internalizing these principles. It should come as no surprise that these principles, when applied to life, have the effect of vastly improving relationships and of greatly increasing joy, presence, authenticity and spontaneity.

In short, the same guidelines that make for great improv can help to make one’s life into a beautiful work of art.

There are 10 principles of improv. If improv were a religion (and in my opinion it would make a pretty good one!), these guidelines might be thought of as the ten commandments. In my improv therapy class, each class is focused on one or sometimes two of these elements.

In the course of two hours, we explore the principles through experiential exercises, scene work, games and discussion, and many people find that their lives outside of class changing delightfully as a result.

The Ten Principles of Improv:

1. Listen: Don’t be fooled! This is not as easy as it sounds. The kind of listening called for in improv involves more than the ears. It’s about listening deeply with the whole body. Paradoxically, this kind of deep listening frees you up to behave spontaneously because it makes you stop thinking about what you’re going to do next.

2. Agreement (Yes, And…): Along with listening, this is the most fundamental principle of improv. This principle is about fully accepting the “offers” of the other improviser(s), rather than sticking to our own agenda.

3. Team Work (Group Mind): All of us together are far smarter than any one of us alone. Great improv does not come from one funny person controlling the scene with his or her brilliance. It comes from separate minds unifying into a whole.

4. Don’t Block: “Blocking” is the opposite of “yes, and-ing.” The most effective way to block the scene? Go for the joke. Try to be funny. No better way to interrupt flow.

5. Relationship: Much like life, improv is all about relationship. Find a way to make everything in the scene somehow tie back in to the relationship.

6. Initiation: This is the who, what and where of the scene… Aren’t these the essential questions of life? Who am I? What am I doing here? And where am I? More?

7. Point of View, Opinion & Intention: Enter a scene with a point of view, opinion or intention and let these drive your character and response. How is this different from an agenda?

8. Be in Character: Whatever choice you’ve made at the beginning of the scene, maintain that character throughout the scene. Stick to it, and find a way to “yes, and…” while staying in character.

9. Don’t Ask Questions: Questions don’t move the scene forward at all, and they force your scene partner to do all the work. Turn questions into statements. You already know why he’s limping, you already know that she’s allergic to bugs, etc.

10. Make Active Choices: Actively create a world in the space. Anything you want. Do things in that space. But don’t make the scene about the space. Relationship, remember?

Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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