Beyond the art

Improvisation covers a number of art forms from jazz, dance, and contact improv through to improv comedy and theatre. It usually makes us think of talented, clever people who have some kind of extra ability to do things without a plan, script, or musical score.

But it’s more than an art form. The ability to improvise is an essential part of being human. None of us wakes up to find a script for the day on our bedside table. And we wouldn’t want one anyway – we like to learn, experiment, play around and take a few risks as we go.

The essential predicament of life is that everything changes and is impermanent, and our default response to this is to improvise. Only we don’t generally call it that because it is what we do all day, every day. It’s like the fish swimming in the proverbial water. The medium we use to navigate the world is hidden in plain sight.

A definition of improvisation might help here. Jill Bernard describes improvisation as ‘A highly refined system for observing, connecting and responding’ which we can use to achieve some kind of goal or effect.

With this simple definition, it’s easier to see the ability to improvise as a human metaskill (along with loving-kindness, empathetic joy, equanimity and others). This ability can be honed into a ‘highly refined system’ that enables us interact with what is happening in real-time. Anything else would be a laborious negotiation, a constant and lifeless rehearsal for what comes next, rather than being creatively involved with what’s happening now.

So it’s a good job you started improvising the moment you were born.

Your first breath, cry, smile, tantrum for a milky bar were all improvised (you noticed something, made a connection and responded in some way) and you’ve been working on those skills ever since.

Life demands that we improvise well.

The US marines know that. It’s in their unofficial motto:  Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.

When we hold the intention to improvise well, we can be more deeply engaged in our immediate life-experience. We can be more attuned to our environment. More involved in our relationships. More determined to use what’s there and amplify what’s working to achieve an effect or goal.

When we see ourselves as improvisers it reclaims this ability. It isn’t just the last resort of the unprepared amateur. It’s the go to for any kind of in-the-moment interaction.

So rather than seeing improvisation as an art form. I see it the other way round. The art forms are a playful and heightened way of expressing what it means to be human – to try to live beautifully amidst change and uncertainty.

Taking an improv class, or professional development with applied improvisation is a bit like taking a car to a mechanic to see if the system is working OK. Only improv is a lot more fun, and you get to work on your system for noticing, connecting and responding in space where there is laughter and a shared sense of community because everyone is in the same boat (which is a good vantage point to see the water…).

Improv activities are deceptively simple and evoke the essential predicament of life: you can’t control what other people do and you have to stay alert, nimble and responsive. Word-at-a-time story is a classic example where you tell a story by working with other people, contributing just one word at a time. You soon realise that there is a skillset for improvising and improv offers a low stakes way of exploring how well you ‘notice, connect and respond‘.

There are lots of lessons available through improv, and one of the biggest is how to escape from a vicious cycle that goes like this:

  1. you want to be present and listen
  2. but you are afraid of ‘getting it wrong’
  3. so you get busy thinking and planning ahead, or you criticise and edit yourself (or do all at once!)
  4. and this self-talk and inner chatter makes it hard for you to listen and be present
  5. so you miss what’s actually happening, and then you can’t connect with it or respond effectively
  6. and you label that as ‘getting it wrong’
  7. which sends you back to (3) thinking, planning and getting up in your head

Over time you can learn to leave this loop and just be more present, available and supportive to the people around you (even when you feel stressed or afraid). You can dial down the things that hinder, and dial up the things that help you improvise well. You can learn, unlearn or relearn whatever you need to refine that system for noticing, connecting and responding.

Bill Murray saw the value in improvisation when he called it “The most important group work since they built the pyramids.”

If you’re interested in taking an improv class, coming to a show, or doing some professional development with applied improvisation see our What’s On page for everything coming up.

Photo by Robert Ruggiero on Unsplash

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