Sunday, April 27, 2014

Improvisation & Parenting: It's Time to Walk the Walk

I was brushing my teeth the other day and a thought that pops into my head every so often found its way back again.

"Why don't you practice what you preach and apply the truths of improv to your parenting?"

You see I am frequently annoying my students and friends and anyone who'll listen about how improv can save the world if given a chance. So, it seems time to put my money where my mouth is, walk the walk, physician heal myself and all that. So, let's see if this makes any sense.

First, a little about improv. Many mistake it for stand-up comedy. Many even believe it can only be comic in nature. Not true. Improv is the art of making things up as you go along(okay I am either a very gifted justifier or this is already sounding familiar). Improv is about building something with others that will exist for a moment in unique singularity and can never be repeated or recaptured in exactly the same way twice. When it works it is a near perfect merger of performer and audience in gleeful contract to play together and create something that is greater, deeper and richer for the collaboration than any individual could conspire on their own. I have devoted the better part of the last 26 years to improv and I am still fascinated by it's challenges, its capacity for revelation and for its relentless insistence on humility and hard work.

Yes, hard work. True it is the art of making things up, and like any art it requires skills and practice and failure and growth and innovation. And there are some constants, some truths about improv that I go back to time and again. I will not say rules or even guidelines, because even if you do all of the following there is no guarantee of success. Like an IKEA manual, the end result is often reflective of the individual assembling the bookcase.

Okay, so let's test this theory.

1. Say "Yes and"
This is all about accepting the reality of the moment and building on it. It is never enough to just say "Yes," you must add something of yourself to the moment at hand. You do not literally have to say the word yes, but you cannot deny the reality proposed. You must embrace it and be fascinated by it and add even a little of yourself to it in order to move forward. So, the reality is teenager #1 is behind on his homework. Mixed into that reality is his innate hate of homework and his strong desire to do anything else but. In this case our "and" was a proposed bargain: do an hour of homework, get an hour of free time-and then lather/rinse/repeat until all your homework is done. His "and," bitch and moan and then give it a try. Of course "Yes and" is hard if you're working with someone who may not be yes anding too. You need to constantly assess the subtle changes in the reality and then try again. So remember Mary-identify the reality to "yes" before you "and."

2. There are no mistakes, only opportunities
It is only a mistake if you treat it like one. Celebrate mistakes, they are opportunities to learn and sometimes they are happy accidents that lead to a delicious discovery. When was the last time I celebrated teenager's #1 & 2's mistakes? I honestly and shamefacedly cannot tell you. Instead I panicked and envisioned how this would most likely eventually lead to imminent peril and how can I correct it immediately if not sooner. So when Teenager # 1 breaks that light fixture while practicing his slam dunk fantasy, do not overreact, learn, discover and realize that they feel shame without me having to magnify it.

3. Actively listen
One of my favorites. How do you actively listen? You listen with everything you've got. For what is listening really? Taking in information, letting it settle, and processing it. You don't just use your ears for that. You listen with your eyes; you take in how they are communicating what they are communicating, you notice body language. You listen with context. Whaaaaat? I mean that you hear things differently based on what you know of the person you are listening to. You listen to subtext. Just like a good old Chekov Play or James L. Brooks' movie the words being said are rarely what's actually being said. So when teenager # 2 says as he goes to bed that his stomach hurts, what he's actually saying is " I didn't finish my homework and I'm feeling overwhelmed and I need a day off." Doesn't mean he always gets what he wants, but I must remember he is not being lazy he is simply full up and doesn't know what to do about it yet.

4. You should never worry about being the audience's favorite
So many improvisers define their success by whether or not the audience likes them. Face it, the majority of us humans feel that too. We want to be loved, adored, remembered, considered the best; and it's a rather narcissistic and desperate way to live. It is a horrible way to improvise. Someone who makes that their priority leaves other improvisers in the cold without a second thought and often winds up with no one ever wanting to work with them. I always tell my students that the star of the show is the story that's being told at that moment. Surrender yourselves to telling that story, use anything in your means, constantly ask yourself what does the story need and what can I do to serve that story. So what are teenager # 1 and teenager #2's stories? They are different for sure. Sometimes they are happy stories. Sometimes they are stories of overcoming overwhelming odds. Sometimes they are mysteries. Sometimes they are hideous after-school specials. And I must remember to be fascinated by them and that they are my favorite stories even when they are not and for the love of god Mary ask yourself what role you must play in their stories. Sometimes it is the bad guy.

5. Be Present and Play
Ahhhhhh, being present. There are really expensive seminars on that now aren't there? Here's how I do it, when I remember to do it: I recall the best acting advice I ever received-make the scene about the other person. Doesn't mean I sacrifice my point of view or relinquish all that I am in service to someone else. It means that the person in front of me is the most important person for right now and our connection in that moment will alter all the moments that follow. And isn't that more fun. That allows room to play, to explore with curiosity that shiny new toy, to tear off the wrappings and find out how everything works. So, Mary, when teenager #2 is telling you about his mage and his archer in the RPG(role-playing-game-yeah I know the lingo) of the moment, do not tune him out, be present and play.

6. You do not have to know the ending when you begin
So many improvisers, despite the tightrope act they volunteer for, still want to control the outcome from the first moment. They want a guarantee of success. They want to know that everything will be okay. So they often forsake all the above steps. They push, they try to control all of the information, they plan, and they believe their way is the only way. They are often seen as good improvisers, because they often make the most noise. They also work really hard and have the best of intentions. But as far as I know there is no scientific proof that we can actually control the future, and in spending so much time focused on the end game, we miss so many fun juicy unexpected options along the way that may in fact make the end game even better than we imagined. Ughhhhh. We parents do this all the time, don't we? We worry about college from the moment our kids enter pre-school. Not because we are assholes, we just want everything to be okay. Well, everything is not going to be okay all the time. Sometimes it'll suck, and sometimes it will be better than okay. So, when that report card comes home, or that call about that thing that happened comes in, or that buzzer beater 3-pointer goes in, that is not a predictor of what will absolutely be. That is one chapter on what is unfolding to be a helluva story. So, Mary remember not to forget everything else that comes before rule #6.

There are so many other truisms about improv that apply:

  • Specifics are our friends.
  • Ask questions that lead to the revelation of information, not ones that stop the scene in its tracks.
  • Start every show with a resounding "yay us." 
  • Seriously I could go on far too long, so I will stop.
Improv is the art of making things up as you go along. Sound familiar? I'm certainly not saying this is the way to do it. There is no one "way" to do it. Because despite all of the above, there are only two absolutes in improv: All these rules/guidelines/truths are meant to and will be and should be broken from time to time; and never go on stage, or out into the world, without looking every other player in the eye and saying "I got your back;" literally or figuratively.

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