The foundation of what I teach is simplistic–simplistic, but not naive. I don’t oversimplify improvisation because I don’t understand it. To the contrary, it is precisely because I understand it that I can ignore the complexities and complications that others (and ourselves) feel are necessary to make it “better.” Through this philosophy, all of Gaining Perspective’s students are shown how our human conditioning interferes with how we approach our improvisation and how to free ourselves from that conditioning. This philosophy didn’t start with me, though–it is a Viola Spolin invention through and through. What I refer to as “the foundation” is her “Five Obstacles to a Direct Experience,” which may be found in her book, Theater Games for the Lone Actor. If you’ve never read it, do.
Five Obstacles to a Direct Experience
1. The Approval/Disapproval Syndrome
When we seek the approval of the audience, our fellow players or anyone we want to impress, we are trading the sanctity of that moment on stage with our work for that approval. If you’ve ever decided that the audience didn’t like your show because they weren’t laughing, you became more concerned with gaining approval than being present in your show.
On the flip side of this, when we allow judgment of self, our fellow players, the audience, the space, the piece we are doing, etc., we are allowing judgment to reside as the barrier between ourselves and our work.
I refer to this as the hamster wheel of a past situation. Internal monologues include lovely phrases like,”Why did I do that?” and “I’m so stupid!” and “I completely screwed this all up!”
This internal monologue pulls us out of the here and now and onto the hamster wheel where we beat ourselves up over a brief moment from our past. Spending our energy on that hamster wheel is pointless and time-consuming. That moment is gone, and yet we choose to hold on to it, forsaking the scene or show that is still in progress before us. We MUST let it go and focus on this current moment on the stage, in classes or in rehearsals, without letting that brief choice from our past take us out completely.
By attacking the stage to “win” each time you perform, your focus becomes so narrowed on being successful with every move you make that you lose sight of what’s going on around you. No one “wins” in improv.
Stopping ourselves from making moves within the work because we’re concerned we will fail at them clearly controls our ability to create freely. Failure is a necessary part of growth, so accept and revel in it when it happens. So much more may be learned by taking risks and failing than just staying in your comfort zone. Every time your butt hits the ground, you’re learning something new and, ironically, the more it happens, your ability to achieve a higher percentage of successful moments increases–almost without effort.
When we load ourselves with attitude, we are always at a distance from whatever is around us because we are more connecting to the “judgment” of it than to the thing itself. Bringing to the stage, class or rehearsal any outside frustrations or discomforts and turning them into forms of anger or dissension toward a fellow player, a director or even an activity makes you completely unable to connect to this moment. In Viola’s words:
“Attitudes clog the machine… keeping us from directly handling a problem.”
If your mind is elsewhere, it contributes to a less than focused attitude for that moment, making you useless to your fellow players and to the scene.
The preceding four obstacles all revolve around the fifth: Fear. Fear is the driving force of self-doubt, which keeps us from making any move whatsoever because we’re afraid we’ll make the wrong one.
It is most common to experience a combination of these obstacles at any given time on stage, especially in the beginning phases of your improv life. Cultivating the awareness of each of these obstacles in your own relationship with and approach to the work is critical for understanding what works for you and what doesn’t work for you on stage.
By recognizing these obstacles for ourselves in an improv setting, our awareness begins to spread off stage and into our everyday life. We begin to notice how our judgment of others gives us an attitude toward them, which keeps us from working effectively with them in professional or social settings. Our fear of saying the “wrong” thing, even though our gut is telling us it is the truth, keeps us from being deeply and honestly engaged with another person. Our inability to recover from a past mistake, which puts us on the hamster wheel of coulda/woulda/shoulda, keeps us from connecting to the amazing situation and people with us right now.
What is your obstacle? Make peace with it. All it wants is for you to listen to it and give it compassion. And once you do, you’ll realize that it was never the insurmountable handicap you perceived it to be. Believe me, it’s true.