Improv & Uncertainty
Updated: Jul 23, 2021
Can principles of improv help us confront the unpredictability in our lives?
"What survives on Earth is what effortlessly adapts to the changing environment and changing circumstances.”
— Ernie J. Zelinski
You stare out among a sea of faces as you nervously tap your foot onstage; you hear the ambient noises of the room amplified by the microphone that you hold; your mind races with thoughts, but nothing comes out. Will this joke be funny or derivative? you think to yourself. If only you had tried it out on someone before...
Yes, the unscripted venture can leave a performer ripe for heckling, embarrassment, and even—perhaps most unnerving to both performer and audience—SILENCE. Sometimes, one feels judged before having said anything at all. So why does one do it? Is it only for the rush of the terror or the thrill of the applause after embarrassment successfully evaded? Or do other skills come to the forefront in these pressurized moments of spontaneity?
One answer may come in the form of an early application of the improv method. A comedian named Dudley Riggs resorted to improv in his vaudeville theater in 1932 precisely in order to counteract heckling. Amidst volleys of "boo"s from an audience one night, the troupe onstage turned to the spectators and asked them what they wanted to hear. Then, the troupe worked from there.
In this month's newsletter, I ask you to consider the value of improv for a life outside the stage. Consider the improvisation you do on a daily basis: Cooking a meal based on the ingredients you have in the kitchen because the grocery store has already closed; choosing an outfit based on only the clothes that happen to be laundered. Even further, recognize the improvisation that you might do in any single moment: "Look, a puddle—jump!"
We are built to improvise. And, what's more, we are built by our improvisations. As Melissa Forbes, lecturer in contemporary music, so aptly puts it:
"We become who we are by how we improvise moment to moment, day to day, year to year. Our identity is the accumulation of these improvised moments. These experiences are housed, felt, endured and enjoyed in our minds and our bodies. Improvising jazz singers show us that deep embodiment of the present moment can transform the mundane into the transcendent. The ability to improvise, to respond with our whole being to each moment creatively, intuitively and joyfully... is the art of becoming fully human."
Nowadays, the lessons of improv have been recognized as such well beyond theater and jazz. Formal improv techniques are often taught in educational settings to make children comfortable with making mistakes, by businesses to build teamwork and empathy, or by start-ups to encourage innovation and risk-taking.
It is important to remember that improvisation works hand-in-hand with experience and confidence that is built before the actual "improv" moment. That is what is prepared, not the script of the action. A surgeon, for example, needs to be able to adapt her experience, knowledge, and resources in ways to high-stakes situations she could not have exactly predicted until the moment is upon her. A teacher standing in front of a classroom must be immersed in the knowledge of his subject so keenly and have the ability to articulate answers to questions that he was not given beforehand. Both have to be able to process the information in front of them quickly, to listen closely to their environment, and to care enough to engage very intensely in the moment.
So the skill of improvisation is not simply getting used to not planning things or having a mere theoretical openness to the unpredictable. It is preparing yourself for the unexpected by building experience in things that are important to you and having the confidence to rely on that experience in unexpected ways, when it counts. It is the empathy of being able to understand things outside yourself. Finally, it is learning to silence the inner critic—after all, there is not always time to appease its demands.
In the exercises below, you will identify some new situations in which you might want to learn to improvise better and then develop the techniques and resources you might need to put this knowledge into practice when the time comes. Once you're ready, I advise you to throw yourself into some improvisational situations and see how it feels!
YOUR TASK FOR THIS MONTH (...should you choose to accept it)
BUILDING YOUR IMPROV MUSCLE
STEP 1: Identify a recurring situation in your life that could benefit from improved improvisational skill. This can be a public situation or a private one. For instance, it might involve informing your employees of a new change without knowing how they'll react, or it could be trying to compose a piece on the piano in the privacy of your own home. STEP 2: Envision scenarios that might arise and how you might respond to them. You might choose to practice this with an improv partner who can confront you with rapid-fire twists and turns that you have to adapt to in the moment. Keeping your inner critic at bay, do not think too much about your past responses; always move forward, addressing what the situation seems to require. STEP 3: Practice becoming alert to your environment (this does not have to be related to your improv activity of choice). For instance, stand in the middle of a crowded market and try to name (in your head!) each activity swirling around you—you might be surprised at what you notice! And do your best not to judge or analyze the activities—simply observe them. STEP 4: Put these skills into practice the next time your situation of choice comes about!
IMPROV LESSONS FOR BUSINESS: THE INNER CRITIC
According to Claire Slattery (improviser and business speaker trainer), emphasis on the importance of teamwork in problem-solving has become increasingly more important—and more endangered—in the business world. Indeed, with the rise of technology and remote work, team members are sometimes less involved with one another during the ever-pivotal brainstorming process, only boldly venturing their ideas over an online meeting once they are fully formed. Say you are developing a product along with an entire team. Sometimes, one of the most counter-intuitive actions is speaking up about your ideas even when you haven't fully thought them through. If you are designing a building, for example, and have a sense of what material would be most attractive but you don't know if it would be available, you might choose to keep quiet. Your idea is futile, after all, you might think; what is the point of voicing an idea whose future you can't envision? In a team, however, it is important to remember that yours is not the only brain and the only set of experiences being applied to a goal. If you are able to overcome your inner critic and voice your idea—one small step in a larger goal—another team member might very well take up the thread and get you one step further. Perhaps someone has worked with the manufacturer of the special material and has a special contact with the company, for example. Although you may not see where to go next, someone else might. Your idea may, in fact, be more intelligent than your inner critic has led you to believe. At your next teamwork brainstorming session, try your best not to censor yourself. Voice small steps and then relinquish control and judgment for a moment, being open to where your team members might take them.
IMPROV EXERCISES FOR RELATIONSHIPS: LETTING GO OF CONTROL
Often, we come to someone with an expectation or supposed knowledge of how a conversation "should" go. You might be presenting someone with information that you hope that they process in a certain way, or you might be hoping for a particular response. This can apply to a personal or professional relationship, with an adult or a child. An important skill in navigating a conversation like this is listening and responding to the words that the other person is saying—not the words that you expected them to say. To observe and process these words and reactions in the moment in the fruitful way, you may need to apply a very essential skill drawn from comedic improv: Recognize that you have to let go of your control over the scene. You are improvising, but remember: the other person is improvising too. What are some control-relinquishing improv games that you can play to practice this so that you apply it to the next such conversation that arises? Here is one loosely adapted from "Pocket Line," a game advised by the Improv Therapy Group: 1) Find a group whom you trust: 5-10 people is ideal. 2) Each person should write a movie quote or song lyric on a slip of paper. 3) Collect these papers in a basket. 4) Choose two people to converse. One person should start a conversation about any topic, and the other person can respond creatively. At some point, someone should ask a question. When any person is at a loss of what to say or simply wants to inject some unexpectedness, they can pick a slip of paper (at random) and read the quote aloud in answer to the question that was posed. Now, the question-asker must improvise in order to integrate this response into a creative whole. 5) Re-start the process with two new conversation partners. You may learn as much from watching others improvise as you do from being the improviser.
No matter the activity, the brain is improvising all the time. Perhaps one of the most interesting—and relentless—improvisational acts that humans engage in is language. You can never know precisely what the other person is going to say, and you are expected to respond with something appropriate and meaningful in minimal time. It is no wonder, then, that the part of our brains that activate during verbal conversation are the same parts of the brain that light up when jazz musicians engage in a call-and-response performance.
So what actually happens in the brain during improvisation, and how is this different from what occurs during scripted performance from memory?
According to a study conducted by Charles Limb and Allen R. Braun, an area of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex becomes less active during improvisation. This is the part of the brain that houses your inner critic—it applies intellectual thought and rationality to help you filter what you're about to say or do. Another part of your brain, however, becomes more active during improvisation. This part of the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex, interestingly enough, has to do with that very intensely improvisational activity that is language. Indeed, Limb and Braun determined through fMRI analysis of jazz musicians performing both improvisational and practised pieces that these distinct areas of the brain were activated depending on the nature of the scriptedness.
But it is not just the brain. There is a muscle memory to improvisation, philosophy professor Stephen T. Asma argues in "We could all do with learning how to improvise a little better." And this muscle memory derives from experience. He writes,
"A great jazz improviser such as Miles Davis had thousands of hours of practice and problem-solving underneath every one of his improvisational flights. This kind of experience makes good improv highly intuitive in a biological sense, not a mystical sense. It taps into the subtle systems of animal awareness, mostly unconscious, that we all possess, such as body-awareness (proprioception), personal space (proxemics), and arousal states such as fight or flight. Muscle memory is loaded with this kind of intuitive wisdom."
Limb and other scientists suggest that the skill of improvisation, so intensely present in language and music, was quite significant to our evolution, and that this may be why humans are hard-wired to seek out art.
Neuroscientist-musicologist Aaron Berkowitz of Harvard University calls upon theories that point towards an evolutionary advantage built into music and language: Some monkeys know three tonal alarm calls, each of which signals to their compatriots the direction from which a danger is approaching. “Sounds are more to express emotion," Berkowitz says, while "words often refer to things that aren’t as emotionally charged.” He adds that certain types of language, like poetry and lyric prose, make use of both of these tendencies. The ability to combine the units of tones and of language can confer a similar advantage in human society, in both tangible and intangible ways, when applied appropriately.
Asma also warns of the darker side of improv misapplied as a lifestyle of shortcuts or an excuse for ignorance. He writes,
"But the narcissistic improviser and the inexperienced improviser—so popular these days in politics and celebrity culture—leaps tragically into delicate situations with no plans, practice, tact or ability to read the room."
The skill of improvisation must be combined, for the betterment of humanity as a group, alongside empathy and a shared goal of contributing to an environment—not simply to get out of the hard work of preparation and save time by "working off the cuff."
"How Improvisation Changes the Brain" by Clay Drinko (Psychology Today) This article summarizes some of the insights from Clay Drinko's book, Play Your Way Sane: 120 Improv-Inspired Exercises to Help You Calm Down, Stop Spiraling, and Embrace Uncertainty. "8 Life Lessons You Can Learn from Improv (Without Ever Stepping into a Class)" by Charity Ferreira (Stanford Magazine)
This article contains a myriad of examples that apply improv techniques (such as taking small steps, or storytelling, or listening) to concrete problems in fields like business, medicine, and technology. The exercises are not quite what you might expect and are worth a read!
"Your Brain on Improv" by Charles Limb (TEDTalk) In this multimedia talk, surgeon, neuroscientist, and musician Charles Limb discusses the effect of musical improv on the brain and displays data about idea that musical improv conversations and verbal conversations might involve the same parts of the brain. "The Jazz Singer's Mind Shows Us How to Improvise Through Life Itself" by Melissa Forbes (Psyche/Aeon) This impassioned, eloquently rendered article describes how musical improvisation engages the mind, the body, and the vocal instrument so holistically that it represents what it means to be human.
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