I’ve always been somebody who needs to know.
In school, I would often study ahead so that I could see where my courses were heading. When planning an event, I like to address all reasonable contingencies in advance. I rarely take a trip without meticulously planning the route and timing in advance.
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I once attended a panel discussion at which one of the panelists was the Emmy-nominated writer and former Saturday Night Live cast member, Tim Kazurinsky. He said that throughout his career, including the present, he was always worried that somebody would suddenly point at him and say, “Hey, that guy has no idea what he’s doing!” And then he would finally be exposed as a fraud and his whole career would come crashing down.
Yes!—I thought—that’s exactly how I feel.
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Over the past few years, I’ve devoted my creative energies to several endeavors: writing, acting from script, and comedic and theatrical improvisation.
As of two years ago, my mindset of “needing to know” had led me to become a confident writer, a confident actor from script, and a very unconfident improvisor.
When writing a scene, song, or essay, I could decide exactly where I wanted the piece to go, and I could craft every detail over a period of months. When acting from script, I could rehearse as many times as I wanted, to perfect every line.
But with improvisation, there was no way to know where the thing was going to go, and that terrified me.
I had studied improvisation for years. I had improvised countless times on stage in front of paying audiences. I had taught improvisation workshops at colleges and universities and received rave reviews for my teaching. I was the general manager of The Second City Training Center in Chicago, probably the world’s best-known school of improvisation.
Yet I felt that, someday, as I was improvising on a stage, somebody in the audience might point at me and say to somebody else, “Hey! That guy has no idea what he’s doing.”
And then a spotlight would magically shine down upon me from above; and then, one by one, people in the audience would begin to point at me and say to one another, “Yeah, that guy has no idea what he’s doing!” and it would build from there—kind of like those movies where one person starts clapping slowly, and then others gradually join in so the clapping gets louder and faster until it builds into a thick cacophony of clapping and cheering—except in this case, remove the clapping and cheering and replace them with people pointing at me and saying, “Yeah, that guy has no idea what he’s doing.”
Then, when this clamor reached its climax, the metaphorical clock of my life would strike midnight, and my Stagecoach of Improvisation would instantaneously turn back into a Pumpkin of Accounting.
Humiliated, I would scurry off into the night, leaving behind nothing but a microphone, lying discarded and ineffectual on the floor of the stage. I would head straight to the nearest Accounting Temporaries office, résumé in hand, and wait there until it opened the next morning, at which time I would make an impassioned pitch to the Accounting Temporaries staff about what a wizard I am with spreadsheets.
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A couple of years ago, I read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King. It is a book about facing one’s fears.
The book got me thinking.
If I was afraid of improvising onstage (which I was), the best thing to do would be to face it head-on. To take on an even scarier form of improvisation.
Up until this point, I had only performed group improvisation. I’d always improvised with at least four or five other performers. In group improvisation, everybody supports everybody, and, under ideal circumstances, that makes the work easier.
I called a friend who was a much more accomplished improvisor than I was. I proposed that he and I work together on two-person improvisation, and he immediately agreed to it. We called another friend of ours who is a brilliant director of improvisation, and he agreed to work with us.
None of us had any idea whether any marketable product would result. All we knew was that we were going to work on two-person improvisation. We simply started meeting every couple of weeks, and doing exercises and improvising scenes. The director let our scenes get longer and longer, and after several months we were improvising 30-minute, two-person scenes. (Before this, I had been afraid of improvising three-minute, two-person scenes.)
Soon we rented a theatre space and performed the improvised play, which we called doubleplay. Since then we’ve performed doubleplayseveral times. Each night we create a brand-new, completely improvised one-act play. We have no idea in advance as to any elements of the play such as characters, relationship, setting, plot, or dialogue. We make it all up, on the spot, onstage in front of the audience. We have recently added a musician who improvises a musical underscore for each play.
A year ago I would not have believed that I would ever have the nerve to improvise a single one-act play. Now I’ve improvised several of them in front of paying audiences.
I’ve learned that improvisation is not about thinking of something clever or funny to say. Rather, it is about connecting with your partner, being completely in the present, and being always in a state of reaction, not invention. When we’re in the right zone (which certainly is not always), we are not pushing the play; rather, the play is pulling us. Instead of writing the play, we are discovering it, almost the same way the audience is.
I still find improvisation somewhat frightening. When I’m about to improvise onstage in front of an audience … I am concerned. But today I’m facing my fear head-on.
And I am learning that there can be great joy in not knowing.
The artists involved in doubleplay are director Jonathan Pitts, musician Joe Eisman, and actors Joe Yau and Ranjit Souri. Souri (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches writing classes and manages a theatre school in Chicago.