Improv, Zen, & Muggles: 5 Things We Can All Learn From Improv

Raise your hand if you have seen an improv comedy show before. Most of you. Good. Now, raise your hand if you have seen a good improv comedy show before. A lot of people can’t tell the difference, which is why I think Improv comedy gets a bad rap sometimes. I think for the most part the greater understanding of improv being “legit” theatre is starting to spread. But improv, when done and taught well, is a very important part, not only to the theatre world, but the muggle world as well. The skills that not only everyday people learn, but what actors can learn from improv can make a huge impact on them. It teaches everyone, performers and muggles alike, how to be present in the moment, listen to their guttural instincts, and simply take in information in a new way. Using a Zen approach, and techniques from View Points, let’s take a look at 5 things Improvisers, Actors, and all Humans can take away from Improv...

1. Be In The Moment... Like... REALLY In The Moment
If you are in theatre, or have done any reading on Buddhism or Zen you have heard this before, “Be in the moment.” But what does this mean? How can you be anywhere but in the moment? Right? Right. Huh? Exactly. You can’t be anywhere else BUT in the moment. You, as an improviser, cannot be thinking about two steps ahead, or where the scene is going. If you are an actor, you can’t be thinking about your third line from now. If you are a human you should not be thinking about life five years down the road (other than maybe saving financially) because, I can tell you better than anyone, whatever life you think you will be having five years down the road, is not the life you will have five years down the road. All we have, is this moment right now. That is the only thing that is certain…not guaranteed…but it is the only thing you certainly have. This moment. Even as you read this, all you have is this moment right now, and if you are not in this moment right now, then you are not living in this moment, you are living in either the past or the future. You are not present. How can you be expected to listen and respond to your scene partner, if you are not present? Especially in improv, we cannot do that. When we give ourselves over to the moment, then we are truly present in it. We can truly listen, and respond. We take note of everything in that moment. How we feel, when things move, how that affects us. That is something anyone can take away from improv. Live in the now. Be present. By doing this, we become hyper aware, (more on that later.) So, how do we be in the moment?...

2. Listen With Your Whole Body
“I thought I just had 2 ears to listen?” No. Every square inch of your body is a server that receives information and transmit it through your whole body. This does not just pertain to improv or theatre, this is life also. When we open up our listening devices, i.e. eyes, ears, smell, touch, heart, gut, nerve endings, all of the above can tell us something…and everything. If the way someone is talking is telling my gut that I feel a certain way about what they are saying, I am going to listen to that. Using that information, I am going to respond only based on that listening to my gut. Have you ever been talking with someone and you just have a guttural instinct that they are lying? Or the way someone sets papers down on the table seems like they are mad? Or the way they laugh sounds like they are happier then they have ever been? That is you listening to your heart and your gut. I'm going to respond to that based on those feelings. Going back to improv, if we open ourselves up to that information coming in, we don’t have to think at all, we simply have to listen and let our bodies tell us how to respond.

3. Now That We Are Listening With the Whole Body, We Must Retain Information We Receive
All the information that has come out already, we must retain it and keep it in our little mind banks to use later, but we can’t dwell on it. One of my early improv teachers at Second City, (and forgive me. I wish I remembered which one so I could quote them properly.) One thing they said stuck with me, and I use it and pertain it to everything. “Improv is like driving a car looking in the rearview mirror. You can’t see where you’re going, you can only see where you’ve been.” This is so true. The confusion comes in when people think that the only way to move forward is by dwelling on what we already know. The information that we know only informs us how to move forward. It is not telling us how to spin our wheels and stay where we are. My performing partner, Bob Kelly, and I refer to this as “leaving bread crumbs”. We do a long form two person show that lasts for fifty minutes with the same story line. So when a piece of information comes out, we aren’t always so quick to jump right on every little thing. It’s a bread crumb that we can come back to should it serve us.

Here is an example:

BRENT: I’ve been training really hard on my parkour Denise. But life, bills, work just keep getting in the way.

BOB: The problem isn’t life Peter, the problem is you never follow through on anything. You never finish stuff.

BRENT: I finish stuff.

BOB: Like this half-finished puzzle of horses in a prairie?

BRENT: I lost some pieces.

BOB: And this half eaten bowl of cereal?

BRENT: I got distracted.

BOB: Or this half completed sculpture of male genitalia? It just looks like two bowling balls resting against a tree stump?

BRENT: I ran out of clay.

BOB: That’s my point! You need to follow through Peter.

This small example is filled with bread crumbs. One, at any point Peter can start doing parkour, and nothing needs to be said. He already said he’s been training really hard on it. Two, the entire rest of the scene Peter can make reference to being hungry because he didn’t finish his bowl of cereal. Three, If another character enters they can look at the “Bowling Ball” sculptor quizzically and move on. And there’s so much more in just ten lines. Notice too, that when Peter says he’s been training on parkour, the scene doesn’t become about Peter doing parkour. When we hyper listen like that, there is so much to play with around the core of the scene. The core of the scene is obviously the relationship between Denise pushing Peter to finish things, and the motivation behind that. For you humans out there, whenever you meet someone new, how much do you really listen and remember them? When someone introduces themselves, undoubtedly they will mention something about themselves in conversation. You don’t have to tell them you do this, but connect their name to some information about them. “My name is Tom…my family went on a trip to the Caribbean a few months back…” Tell yourself, “Tom. Caribbean. Bahamas. Tommy Bahama.” Two things happen when you do this. You remember their name, and you’ll have something to talk about the next time you see them. When you see them you can think, “Tommy Bahama.” That person, whether said or not, will appreciate you more for remembering their name, and will be impressed you remembered what you talked about from the first time you met. So all of the fun stuff just comes from listening and being “Hyper aware.”

4. Being Hyper Aware
This is similar to listening with the whole body, but you can’t listen, if you aren’t aware. Being hyper aware opens us up to hyper listening. Being hyper aware is latching on to every little thing. Let me clarify, by “Latching on”, I don’t mean making it vocal or drawing attention to every little thing, but be aware of every little thing and let it affect you. I make reference to this in a previous article where I talk about how everything matters. The way a character brushes her hair out of her face matters. The way a character keeps going back to look at paperwork matters. The smells in the scene matter. You might say, “But we are improvising there are no smells.” There are only no smells if you tell yourself there are no smells. But you can have smells in improv and theatre and have it matter. To become hyper aware to these things, you can do what is referred to in Viewpoints as “Soft Focus”. Right now, wherever you are reading this, pick something around you and focus only on that. Look at it, and don’t worry about anything else. You’ll notice, everything around you kind of disappears. Now, look at that same thing, but this time, soften your focus, maybe even squint your eyes a little bit. You should feel like you can take in the thing, but also everything around it and you. This is soft focus. If you try this on stage, and life, you open yourself up to a wider range of view. How do humans benefit from this? Be hyper aware of your surroundings. Notice if someone dropped something. Notice is someone is feeling down. Notice if some old lady needs help across the street. When we open up our peripherals we can see the world in a much wider vision that can help us live meaningful lives. And if you just prefer not to help them, that’s fine….be a dick. ;)

5. Be an Assassin With Your Words, Not a Terrorist
Improv, and life, can very easily get into a mish mosh of a lot of jumbled words and speedy unnecessary talking. All too often improv scenes get filled with a lot of noise, but not much is actually being said. When you say things, say them in a precise way. Be succinct. Get to the point and deliver it in a firm way. Two examples:

  1. “I know I’m late. The car broke down. Then the tow truck never showed. My phone battery died. I tried running, but got lost….ect.”
  2. “I know I’m late. I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad.”

Example B gets right to it and it tells so much more information than A, and in less words. Example B tells us a little about the situation, “I know I’m late.” It tells how my character feels, “I’m sorry.” And it tells how the other character feels, “Please don’t be mad.” The same can go for us humans. When we talk too much, we aren’t listening. Be clear about what you are saying, and say it confidently.

Hopefully some of these things can be useful for improvisers, actors, and muggles alike. Please feel free to comment below on anything I touched on here with your thoughts, disagreements, or general praise. Let’s go create some funny!!

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Written by Brent Tubbs •