Updated: Nov 16, 2022
Scripted moments in life feel inauthentic. We all know that person who never seems to have a single original thought. It’s like they’re saying what they think we want them to say. It’s like their clinging to a script that only they possess. We might describe this person as inauthentic or difficult to relate to. I do not write these things to lampoon this person. Some have deep seeded reasons why they don’t feel comfortable showing their true self. They might feel boxed in. They might struggle letting their guard down. They might fear being judged. They might have been brainwashed into thinking they must be a certain way. For these people it takes courage to go off script.
Improv takes courage. And courage might mean something different for each individual. It might take courage to speak your mind. It might take courage to show emotion. It might take courage to use your body, to be touched, to connect, to let go of a preconceived idea and to speak in front of others.
“It’s unscripted,” says a day-one improv student. Indeed, that is the hallmark of improv, it’s unscripted... but what in life isn’t?
Improv isn’t just for dancers, musicians, and actors. All seven billion people on this planet improvise every day. No one is born with a script. No one wakes up with a script in their hand. Do we wake up with expectations? Sure. Do we wake up with plans for the day? Of course. But no one and no thing tells us how to live every minute of our life. Even if there were a master script, even if we knew all the words we were supposed to speak, and all the actions we were to take, we would still have to improvise their execution. Improv is a how, not a what. That’s why it’s so difficult to define. What is definitive. How is relative. What is absolute. How is conditional. What is singular. How is multifaceted.
Despite its relativity, improv is a ubiquitous act. It’s everywhere, and contrary to popular belief, it’s not just “making stuff up on the spot.” It isn’t random. It’s not spontaneous. Spontaneity refers to events which are chaotic, purely impulsive, without any premeditation or external influence. Spontaneity simply happens. If improv were achieved through a series of spontaneous actions, the result would be something indecipherable and absurd. There may be moments of spontaneity within improvisation, but to say improv is purely spontaneous, grossly mischaracterizes the artform. Rather, improv is extemporaneous, impromptu, performed with little warning, but a lifetime of preparation. Our actions and our words, in life and onstage, are inspired by and predicated upon our past, on a system of beliefs and a wealth of experiences that preceded the present moment. And that’s the key to improv - using the past to inspire the present.
In the broadest sense improv is about finding potential in what is readily available here and now.
Let’s find that potential. Stop what you’re doing. Where are you? What is around you? Who is nearby? How do you feel? What do you want? What do you believe? Everything and anything that you have access to right now is something you can improvise with. You can improvise in your environment with the objects that you touch and the people you interact with. You can improvise using your past experiences, using your spiritual beliefs, or your present mental state. Potential is everywhere, but we do not know how to capitalize on it. We do not know how to find the fullest potential in what is readily available.
Why? If improv is everything, why aren’t we better at it? Because we develop many bad habits that keep us from being mindful of the moment we are in. We do not listen, make eye contact, collaborate, let go of our ego, and embrace failure as a part of the process. We do not empathize nor strive to see the merit in every idea. We do not capitalize on our own skills. We doubt ourselves. We live in the past, and talk about the future, but we never respond to what is happening here and now.
Improv works to curb these bad habits. I think that’s the real usefulness of this artform, not to become an actor on Saturday Night Live or a writer for Stephen Colbert, but to be a human who is more self-aware, empathetic, and socially conscious. It’s kind of like yoga, an active meditation. Improviser Dave Razowsky calls it Theatrical Buddhism. Director Del Close called it Theatre of the Heart. Whatever, you call it, it’s improv, and improv is everywhere.
Journal: Make a list of moments, big or small, recently or long ago, when things didn’t go as planned. When your life went off script, how did you manage?
Journal: Describe a moment when you clung to a script, when you acted how you thought you were supposed to act. For instance, maybe you were having a bad day and when someone asked you how you were, you said “fine.” Maybe you altered your appearance to fit in. What have you subscribed to? What has been prescribed for you?
Journal: Describe a time when you courageously went off script.