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Improv for the Dissatisfied Human: An Introduction

By Tavish Forsyth

I was once accused of never being satisfied with anything. I argued feverishly to the contrary, but when I was left alone with my thoughts, I couldn’t help but agree. It felt hurtful, but tru


Being a dissatisfied human means going through life, day-by-day, with the thought, “this could be better” or “this isn’t everything I wanted.” In a bubble, these thoughts are okay. They can even motivate us to make powerful change. But some of us get stuck in negativity, and that’s when dissatisfaction becomes a problem.


Throughout puberty and into my adulthood I battled undiagnosed anxiety and thoughts of suicide. In fact, I almost titled this book Improv for the Suicidal Piece of Shit before my better judgment took hold. Now, I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I haven’t put any bullets in my head thus far and I think there’s a few reasons why. One of them is improv.


This would be the perfect time for me to say, “I guarantee that reading this book will help you lead a more meaningful and fulfilling life” but I make no such guarantee. These are just words on a page. I hope they inspire you, but remember they are just a small piece of an infinite puzzle.


If that puts a bitter taste in your mouth because you were looking for immediate change, here’s my advice: put down this book and do what you love. Love others through acts of kindness. Don’t withhold love because you’ve been hurt before. Do not love indiscriminately. Don’t love your “friends” just because they’ve known you for a longer period than most. Don’t love your mom just because she’s your mom. Mom, if you’re reading this, that was just an example! Love those who actively try and consistently succeed in bringing you joy. My quick and dirty advice is that “love” is a verb, an action for which the word is a poor substitute. If you’re dissatisfied, practice loving yourself and others - not through your words or thoughts - but through your actions everyday. The words and thoughts will follow.


Yes, I realize how hippy-dippy that sounds. It seems like boilerplate, self-help nonsense. As a certified skeptic, I never believe someone when they tell me what they think the answer is. That’s why my second suggestion is to try learning a discipline, joining a community, or going to therapy. Choose what’s right for you. Reach your own conclusion. Improv is just one option.


For all the newbies, improv is acting without a script. In the broadest sense, improv is about finding the fullest potential in what is readily available. In a way, that’s the challenge we all face on a daily basis.


When an improviser walks onstage they only have a few precious minutes to succeed. Like a baby learning to walk, new improvisers fail constantly. I would guess 9 out of every 10 beginner improv scenes suck. But then there’s that one improv scene that’s not half-bad. In fact, it’s actually kind of good. “Why was that one scene different?” It felt connected, easy, and fun. Both players went with the flow and made something out of nothing. “How?”


An improviser enters into the unknown with confidence, accepts the situation they are in, believes in their ability, prioritizes empathy, surrenders the outcome, and plays with abandon. An improviser doesn’t always get to choose who they perform with. They don’t always get to choose what the scene is about. They don’t always get to choose who they are. But they get to choose how they play in their limited time on the stage.


Even though life is longer than an improv scene, it’s just as fleeting. Each has a degree of limitation and a degree of freedom. In life, we don’t always get to choose who we spend our time with. We also don’t always get to choose our circumstance. We don’t even really to choose who we are, but we can choose how we act, how we express ourselves, and how we engage with others. Perhaps that’s the only choice we all have.


I wrote this book because I discovered that improv offers a philosophy and a process that I could take off stage and into the real world. Improv has empowered me to make meaningful changes, not only in my life but in the lives of those I love. Improv inspired me. It helped me to come out of the closet, seek therapy, cultivate respect for my body, redefine my values and reexamine my life goals. Although I can neatly write about these experiences here, make no mistake, this was a painful, joyous, and a surprising journey, one with many teachers, characters, and plot twists. It’s a journey that I am still on. What improv taught me was a set of values for how to be present onstage, see potential where I might otherwise see problems, and embrace opportunity. Over the course of a decade, my time spent contemplating the utility of improv became a meditation (at times even a spiritual event). I had a tenuous grasp of who I was when I first stepped on stage, but after years of pursuing theatre and this mysterious artform, I feel like I’ve finally come into being. Or perhaps I should write, “I feel like I am finally coming into being” because yes, this is a journey I am still on. The “being” that I am is not fixed, nor static, nor singular. Who I was yesterday is not who I am today is not who I will be tomorrow.


The “I” that I am may refer to the individual me, but “I” does not represent my singular experience. My tenuous grasp was not of myself, but of my nature, and of my nature I learned three things:


1. Inevitably, I am me.

2. The me that I am is always changing.

3. I must change with the change.


Wow, what a mind fuck! Forgive me for waxing existential in the intro. When you think about it too much improv becomes deeply enigmatic, seemingly paradoxical and contradictory, but hey - whatcha gonna do?


*sigh*


I’m still anxious by the way. I struggle with depression sometimes too. But I’m a little more aware of who I am, what I love, what I fear, what I want, what I see, and what I hear. And I’m thankful. And I must give some of that thanks to improv. Perhaps, this book will reach another confused and anxious individual like me. I hope it does. I hope this helps someone realize that they’re not alone, nor powerless, nor bereft of potential. My mom was a Yoga teacher and she taught me that “Namaste” means “I honor the light within you.” To that kindred reader, Namaste.


To the student of improv and theater, this book was also written for you. You’ll find pages of improv theory, rife with exercises, techniques and structures to help you navigate your creative journey.


To the teachers of improv, theater, and communication, to the psychologists, consultants, social workers, artists and activists, this book was also written for you. It is a comprehensive guide to improv and its applications, complete with learning resources and curricula.


To the improv novice, the rando who happened to pick up this book, the first chapter is for you (not because you can’t read the rest of the book, but because you might be disinclined to). The first chapter is an introduction to this artform and its philosophy; a snapshot. I have no interest in teaching you something you don’t want to learn, but if your curiosity has been peaked, I would love to show you why improv matters to me.


Whoever you are, my name is Tavish. Thank you for reading this. Even though I can’t see you and have no idea what year it is, it feels good to know that our minds are meeting through the pages of this book. Or maybe it’s an ebook. Or an audio book. Or maybe the year is 2082 and information is being telepathically sent to your brain via cybernetic implant. Whatever the case may be, please accept this transmission of gratitude from me to you.



About Improv for the Dissatisfied Human

This book is divided into six sections.


1. Improv Basics: Intentions & Affirmations

2. Pattern Play: Collaborating with Structure

3. Theater of the Heart: Improv as a Performing Art

4. Refining Skills: Tips and Tricks for Advanced Players

5. Making It: How to Build an Improv Career

6. Beyond the Stage: Applied Improvisation


In the appendix I have included curricula, a glossary, index, works cited and suggestions for continued reading.


The first section provides an overview of the basics. The basics are the soft skills in improv that materialize in less than ten minutes of play. They are the intentions, affirmations, and elemental values that underscore successful improvisation and they can be easily applied to everyday interactions.


The second section is about collaboration. How can we build an improv scene together? What are the challenges we face? What rules of thumb can we employ? This section will help performers navigate scene structure, while highlighting skills to enhance personal and professional communication.


The third section about long form improv. Long form is a style of improv that became popular in the 80s and 90s, and continues to be the dominant form of American improvisation. It is often more durational than other styles of improv. The advent of long form allowed improv to be seen as an artform unto itself, and not merely a theatrical tool or comedy gimmick. In this section we will explore different long form structures and their requisite skill sets, including teamwork, project management, and design thinking.


The fourth section is about refining our improvisational prowess. This section makes recommendations on how to develop advanced skills and how to apply those skills to other modes of performance. This section addresses diversity, political correctness, and humor. It also offers advice on team management and creating an inclusive work environment.


The fifth section is about finding financial stability through improv. It includes resources for aspiring actors, directors, and teachers. It also discusses how to run an improv theater. This section includes information for creativity consultants, coaches, and trainers as well.


The sixth section is about applied improvisation. It is a final summary about how we apply the principles of improv to our everyday life. It elaborates more deeply on improv as a tool for enhancing communication skills, practicing mindfulness, and broadening our worldview.

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