My 200th Post: Improv & Me

I love improv and believe (when my heart and head are in it) that I’m good at it, too.  Here are some other things I love and believe myself to be good at.  They share some skills with improvisation.  Am I good at improv because I am good at these things, or am I good at these things because I’m good at improv?  Doesn’t matter; who cares.

What’s fun is thinking about how the skills involved in these activities translate into being good at improv.  Enjoy!

Ten Things I Am Good At Because I’m Good At Improv And Vice Versa

Rain man

Got to get home for Wapner

1. Driving – I’m a good driver.  Definitely.  Definitely a good driver.  The key is focusing outward.  Driving, improv and boxing are, for me, three activities in my life that pull me out of my head.  Roadtrips become a meditative experience at times as I’m focused outward on what’s out my windows and in my mirrors.  I tend to have a lead foot, but that only further necessitates needing to be aware of my surroundings (including impending “Authorized vehicles only” signs). Distracted driving (stupid cellphones – see #7) is something you as an improviser should avoid, not only to avoid collisions but also to help train your mind to focus entirely on what’s external.  Focus outward, observe and react confidently (instead of out of panic because you hadn’t been paying attention).

Mario pole

Mario goes down on pole

2. Side-Scrolling Video Games – To be clear, I am not good at video games. My system is the original NES; on that console I ruled (over my little brothers). But on every console since, I am close to terrible. I have little to no concept of navigating 3D space in a first-person shooter, rendering me laughable during bouts of Golden Eye or Halo or Medal of Honor [Whatever]. Give me a side scroller, though, – a Contra, a Mario or a MegaMan – and I’ll still hold it down like it was 1990. Why? Patterns and timing. I’d rather run and rerun and rerun a sequence until I achieve perfection only to learn the princess is in another castle than to push from one side of a map to the other, taking a ton of hits, so I can watch an overlong cutscene. Because you know what mastering patterns and timing takes? Practice. Today’s games and gamers don’t have a lot of patience for practice.

Office space waiter

Yup, I was often compared to this guy

3. Waiting Tables – I’ve waited on a lot of tables, from Friendly’s to fine dining. I worked with great people, made good money and had time to pursue my artistic dreams (in theory; in reality I’d work 5pm to 2am, party until 5am, sleep until 3pm and repeat). More than anything else, though, the experiences helped hone two abilities I use daily: memory and multi tasking. Do you write down lists of to-dos? Can you only give your full attention to one activity at a time? Maybe waiting tables isn’t for you. Or maybe you should start waiting tables to flex those muscles.

4. Data Analysis – So I did not make a career out of waiting tables (I got tired of vying for time off during the holidays), but I spent fifteen years in research and analytics.  Finding a pattern in the noise of data and making that pattern the story has been decently satisfying work. As an improv teacher, it’s also satisfying to see other data savvy individuals find their improv swagger through patternwork. Students who had struggled to know what to do next when faced with the myriad options of a blank stage, through playing patterns and games, now could feel the path forward heightening details and characters’ behaviors. It’s like that moment in The Matrix when Neo sees the code underlying his world; a propensity for analyzing data can help you become a One in your improv community.

small talk

“Katy Perry’s Firework comes on and I can’t not dance.”

5. Big Small Talk – All those years crunching numbers for Corporate America? They came with a fair share of conversations around a water cooler. Now, no body likes “small talk.” It’s flat, impersonal and often full of questions neither the asker or answerer care about – much like in bad improv scenes. But can we elevate small talk (and bad improv scenes)? Yes, by engaging the individual. By being vulnerable and coxing vulnerability out of others. Instead of “Nice sweater,” try “You always have the best taste.” Instead of “Did you see the last episode of The Walking Dead,” try “Man, some days I’d rather be trying to survive the zombie apocalypse than working here; of course, I’ll be the guy who dies doing something stupid.”

6. Strategic Board GamesCatan. Risk. Othello. Chess. I love these games.  I enjoy making an adaptable plan, working my way forward based on the moment to try to get to a desired outcome while remaining flexible to the randomness of a die roll or fellow players’ moves.  Like my favorite Zen view of improvisation, we must navigate the rapids we course down with, not against, the tide.  Also like improv?  These games are so fun that all I care about is playing; I don’t mind losing in the least.  Sure, I want to win, and being emotionally invested in my progress makes the game more fun for all involved, but losing is just part of the playing, not a reason not to play.

twain on the porch

I’m also often smoking. I’m so Twain.

7. Porch Sitting – Sitting and staring isn’t a skill, you say? Can you do it without checking in on an electronic device? I love sitting on my back stoop, focusing my senses outward on the world to capture the details that make life as opposed to being captured by my electronic devices. Many have argued to me that through their phones – Facebook especially – they are exposed to even more of life’s details than I am when looking out over one location. But I counter that those are the “showy” details, not the often-overlooked minutia that actually supports life.  Improvisers on stage leveraging details gleaned through Facebook may create a scene about finally quitting one’s job to go on an around the globe cruise – and that would be fine.  But I am endeared much more to those little moments, such as an improviser playing a courier who recognizes that his pant leg is rolled up and he has an MP3 player velcroed to his arm.  We have to be able to see the trees in the forest, as focused on the big picture we’ll miss all the intricate details. If we purposely notice life’s intricate details and bring them to stage, our audience will recognize them, even if they never before consciously thought about those details.  And in that moment our made up reality melds with the audience’s real reality and Improv As Improv Does Best is achieved.

8. Caring – I’m a raw nerve. This is maybe not my best trait as far as my wife is concerned – riding an emotional roller coaster for a lifetime can make you nauseous – but it does help me as an improviser. My ability to approximate “acting” is based on my propensity to feel deeply in-the-moment and to have those feelings oscillate in a flash. Imagine being married to me.  I prefer to think of myself as “passionate” but “batshit crazy asshole” is probably more appropriate.

contrast and composition

What do you see?

9. Fine Art – I was a Finance/Fine Art double major.  “Then you’ll know why you’re living in a box after graduation,” a friend joked. Actually, it’s meant lucrative (if uninspiring) day jobs that afford me the ability to pursue my passions after 6pm. Of course, if I had it to do over, I would go to Art School.  I like drawing; I love photography.  “You’ve got an eye,” is the cliched thing you say to photographers.  An eye for what?  Balance, contrast, composition/layout/ format. With these skills one can build an interesting stage picture.  They can find the rhythm and oscillations when going through a long-form format (obviously being gifted in music helps too).  In any scene, from Two Person to twenty people, an artist’s attention can help seek symmetries and empower asymmetries.  I also did photography in a darkroom; that’s right, a darkroom, kids.  In those days, photograph development was a process, not a click of your phone at arm’s length.  I loved the process and miss it dearly.  The mechanics involved were both scientifically precise and fluid – you had to know the rigid process backward and forward, but you had to be able to follow your instincts in the moment to pull an audible on an exposure length or developer time.  You kids today…

dogs and babies

Some days I’m the baby, others I’m the dog.

10. Interacting With Dogs And Babies – Sure, who doesn’t love dogs and babies?  Okay, there are myriad reasons to loath both.  But for those who do love dogs and/or babies, how you interact with them can say a lot about what kind of improviser you may be on stage. Dogs and babies thrive on patterns. It’s how they understand and learn to interact with the world. Want your dog/baby to be “good”?  Be consistent.  Repeat.  If you do X when they do Y, they will expect X again when they inevitably do Y again. Want your dog/baby to have fun playing with you?  Be consistent.  Repeat.  Also, follow their lead.  I was playing on the beach with my 2 year old nephew.  I mirrored him as we spun in circles, then fell backward then threw sand up into the air.  Then we got back on our feet and did it again.  My 4 year old niece saw us having fun and came and joined us – spin in circles, fall backward, throw sand, repeat. My wife saw us having fun and wanted to join.  She watched us to understand before she jumped in and followed.  “I get it,” she said; “You spin around four times then fall backward, and then throw out your legs and up your arms to toss sand.  Cool.”  Then she tried to join.  But it was over.  She killed it because (as we are wont to do post puberty) she needed to understand the pattern before she could commit to following the pattern.  Commit to following the pattern.  Remember, repetition is all the “sense” you need.

So read this again.

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