A few days ago, I received a call from a potential student who was interested in knowing more about the philosophy of Gaining Perspective, as well as future dates for workshops. What really threw me most was his following question:
I saw on your website you have an entire page filled with links to your competition.
Why would you do that?
I was taken aback; I don’t think of it that way. Each “competitor” that I’ve listed on Gaining Perspective’s web page under the Player Resources section has a different philosophy of how to approach the art form. I’m a firm believer that if you love improv enough, you will want to become a well-rounded performer, thus making the commitment to study in as many institutions and from as many different instructors as possible. I didn’t open The YES! Lab with the thought that I was doing this to compete with anyone, but to simply offer our way of looking at the work–as another option for students who wanted more.
I am confused by the thought that someone may perceive Gaining Perspective as competition, or that potential students may think the same thing. How can one institution’s approach compete with another’s when we are all different people with varying successful methods for training improvisers? The only similarity should be our end result: to further each student’s ability to play successfully.
Gaining Perspective doesn’t own improv, nor does anyone else in Denver, Miami, Phoenix, Austin, New York, Chicago or the rest of the universe, for that matter. If this were the case, certainly Second City wouldn’t have had Mick Napier, co-founder of Annoyance Theater, directing some of the most incredible Main Stage shows they’ve had in recent years. And Susan Messing wouldn’t be able to teach at each of the main institutions in Chicago: iO, Annoyance and Second City. The list of instructors in Chicago and around the country who teach and perform in various places in the same city is long. Why does Denver have to be any different? Communities are built by coming together, not segregating. Modern history has proven that one over and over.
In much the same way that different styles of music appeal to individuals on various levels, so do different styles of teaching improv. I invite you to create your library of knowledge based on what styles of improv appeal to you.
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.
I’ve been improvising and teaching improv for a long time. I won’t bore anyone with the number of years because ultimately that does not matter. I don’t believe your ability to improvise comes in a quantifiable form, but rather by simply doing.
I live by the theory that the work of improvisation is more important than all else, by which I mean it’s even more important than me. If I allow my ego to be involved in the work in any way, I am doing the work a disservice by thinking that I am in control of how my time on stage will turn out, when the opposite is actually much more satisfying. When I play, I want to remove myself from the situation and allow the work to flow through me. It has taken a long time to get to this place, but it is very achievable and very rewarding when you do.
When I first started improvising, I wanted to be funny… Like really. All the time. My entire existence was wrapped up in being funny. My thought was that if I wasn’t funny, I was failing as a human being. This desire to be funny constantly became a method in which I would compare myself to others on and off stage, never feeling good enough or worthy if I did not have ALL of the attention in the room because I was not the funniest. That, my friend, is a lot of energy and ultimately a lot of sadness rolled into a ball waiting to become a tumor.
I started experiencing bouts of depression when not on stage and wondered if there was more to be examined in terms of how I expressed myself instead of being “on” all the time. I began to see that being on and being the center of attention is not only tiring, it subsequently keeps people at a distance instead of pulling them toward you, when what the funny person wants is to be loved, to belong.
After teaching improv for many years, I have noticed that same spark in others when they first find the craft. There are lots of jokes and funny-funny times that happen amongst newbies, which is simply what I’ve come to recognize as the beginning phase of development as an improviser. We enter thinking love is gained through how many laughs per minute (LPMs) we can attain from an audience or from our peers. We can get a lot of mileage out of this way of thinking in the beginning because it gives us friends, it gets our names mentioned in what we consider higher-level improviser circles and usually gets us onto house teams. We feel we have made it. Who could ask for anything more?
There is more. There is so much more. The work is more than any one of us. When we allow ourselves to settle into the belief that being funny is all there is, our ego is pleased. However, what has ultimately brought us to improv is our heart. When truly connected to the work, our hearts are opened as we are introduced to the purest forms of ourselves we could possibly be. By allowing our heart to guide us through this craft, by exploring new avenues, playing with new or different people that aren’t from our normal circles, we learn to expand ourselves for the sake of what the work is here to teach us as individuals.
When I hear of others bad-mouthing each other for the sake of their improv group being better than another, or the idea that long form is better than short form, or this theater is better than that one, I am truly saddened. There must be some levity brought to looking at this way of thinking. This territorial idea that I’m better than you at playing make-believe is absurd. For as much as I love improv and hold it in high regard, I also know that just because I do a good scene, starving children in Africa will still die.
I invite you to allow the work to be from your heart today. Let it move through you so that you may be the catalyst it deserves you to be. The ego can take a break. Trust me, for the sake of our work’s growth, the ego should rest.
“Improvisation is not just cleverness– it’s an actor living his life onstage.”
During holiday time spent with my in-laws, my father-in-law and I were home watching television. Because he had control of the remote, we landed on Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Certainly not a choice I would have made, but I allowed it, as I wasn’t feeling well and simply wanted my mind off of being ill for Christmas.
During this particular episode, the Palin family was to go camping with Kate Gosselin and her brood of children. What I viewed within that hour was truly the personification of NO! Kate incessantly whined, complained and eventually flat out bitched about being hungry, cold and wet, while doing nothing more than standing under a canopy. Her kids were having a ball, saying YES! to the new experiences they were having with fishing, cooking out, and playing in the rain.
I was torn between two opposing emotions while watching. On one hand, I was so annoyed that Kate is still on my television under some umbrella of “celebrity” simply because she pushed a bunch of babies out of her hoo-ha AND that this behavior was what she had to show for it. She appears to have absolutely no gratitude for what she has been given in this life, especially as a now single mother of eight children. On the other hand, I was deeply saddened that with all of her blessings in life, she continually chooses to play the victim in situations. Whenever I’ve seen her on television, she spends most of her time complaining about her life and those around her. Nothing is good enough for her.
Sadly, Kate is the perfect specimen of NO! personified. Although one’s current surroundings aren’t all they think they should be, there are still works of beauty and wonder surrounding any situation. All pleasure and pain exist at the same time. What one chooses to place their focus on, they will see with more clarity. When I teach, I remind students that their life is a garden and energy spent on anything they focus on causes it to grow. If one’s energy is spent on the wonders surrounding them, then they are essentially watering those wonders and subsequently, more wonders grow. If one’s energy is spent on the woes surrounding them, then they are in turn watering those woes.
What is growing in your garden?