There is a tale – perhaps apocryphal – of a man who had lived in cities his whole life and took up a challenge to live in the desert alone for a brief time. Just him, a tent and a fire, no buildings, no cars and not a single living human soul within shouting distance.
Apparently with in 48 hours, he had lost his mind.
We spend much of our lives desperate to reign it in, manage it, wrangle it, train it out of ourselves, our children. But it will get you in the end. ignore it long enough and it will run rampant. Burst forth through your well managed edges. Trimmed hedges. Entropy is an inescapable fact, death comes to our bodies – and knowing that; being able to regulate our response to that to a certain extent – metacognition- is perhaps the biggest blessing and curse of our species.
So we build elaborate structures to minimise risk – insurance policies; traffic lights, exoskeletons to sheath our hairless, vulnerable bodies; safe jobs with assured income and holiday pay; concrete buildings, shiny metal cars, planes that carve up air-space, space stations that carve up space-space; we make art and science to try and make sense of it all in metaphor and double blind trials. We draw diagrams and write books explaining it in ever increasing patterns of complexity.
We do a pretty good job of managing it I would say. So good, that by the time we get to adulthood, most people are so out of practice, that the mere prospect of expressing something creative and spontaneous in front of an audience of some kind, is mortifying. In fact, kind of literally. There is a freezing up. A terror that is utterly real, but totally disproportionate to the actual risk involved. Mmmm. That’s right, you are just being asked to read a poem at my wedding and yet, your response is not dissimilar physiologically to how you might react if you were about to be attacked by a lion!!
Just an audience.
Not even an audience of lions.
Just your colleagues.
Or your family and friends!!
This is where improvisation is good medicine for our species. It helps us to break down some of that over-structuring bollocks that dominates us and has us cut off at the bollocks – or is it the throat? Probably both.
But like the guy in the desert, we have to ease ourselves back into chaos gently, so as not to, you know, blow a valve of some sort. Chaos is all very well, but we seem to need structures to be able to cope with it in small chunks, or we very quickly unravel. We are delicate creatures really.
Being pushed through a lot of formal education as a child, (for which I am very grateful) – classical music, classical ballet, then an ill-thought through university degree straight out of high school to study something I really wasn’t very into for three years, ending with a degree that said to the world – what the did it say?- uhhhhm – that i’d been a obedient girl for fifteen years of full time institutionalised learning and hadn’t quite grown the courage to let the chaos in just a little bit and follow my wilder yearnings and deeper path.
A few years later i went to acting school which started to make more sense. But things only really started to get interesting for me as an artist, when I started to decompose some of that formal education. Digest it. Fuck with it. Compost it all down into small enough bits that out of the newly formed mush I could begin to build my own shapes.
We like to imagine- or we are sold the notion that what we are chasing is the experience of ultimate freedom. Anything you like, when ever you want, for as long as you want it.
So, get on stage, now, and make up a performance of some kind, with no preparation at all – about anything you like –
It can be about anything.
Anything you like.
Everything! (if you want)
What ever you want.
Anything you like.
All you can eat
and probably your imagination shuts down completely and you have some low level (or high voltage) panic that you cant think of anything at all and have no idea where to start.
Having all the options is the worst kind of heaven in the world!
To begin, we need a specific clue. Something to reign in the scope of the terrifying abyss. Something to trip us up into the here and now. Our brains are so blessedly relieved to have specifics. It can be a simple noun, or something more delicate, a simile perhaps, an image – the implication of a specific – to engage our creative imaginations – to enable us into action:
‘All you can eat – with a teaspoon, secretly’
‘all you can eat – like you haven’t eaten for weeks and you want to steal your guests’ silver surreptitiously.’ suddenly there is a playground for the imagination. Blessed relief.
Recently I have been thinking about how when people start out learning improvisation, they are introduced to the non negotiable benefits of listening, agreement and commitment. These are described as the only ‘rules’ or ‘guidelines’ to the beginner. And they are superb guidelines – essential! A mantra! and excellent practice for all aspects of life and relationship! – but it is also not the full picture… the other rules beginners are taught – and it is less visible and less kind of, well, sexy – are structures that limit creative opportunity and focus the imagination on very tightly managed, palatable quantities of chaos. The Alphabet Game. (Each new line begins with the next letter of the alphabet). Shift Left. New Choice. Games where the rules of engagement are so narrow and specific that the limits of the imaginative playing field are very comfortably restricted. The shallow end of the pool with floaties on. The railway tracks – the games – will always pull you back if you venture too far off into no mans land. You cant really go wrong. you won’t ever lose the plot, but you will certainly loosen up a little.
This is good.
In two-provisation – or ‘2-prov’ as it is known in the hood – (the hood in this case being North America, the land from which the most refined practitioners of this art-form in my limited knowlege, seem to hail – I can feel some Canadians bristling and some hot heads in the European Union getting tetchy- but its my blog guys, so, back off!… yes, the collegiate-frat-jargon-factor is pretty difficult to stomach for some and can put off the uninitiated – but unfortunately for you, cultural aesthetics make no difference – because from now on, you can only SAY YES!!!) – in, ahem, 2-prov, or the kind i practice at least, the only structure you have is your relationship with the other actor, your imagination and the ever unfolding present. Thats it really. That and your shared relationship with the audience.
I love that. I love the nakedness and vulnerability of that. I love that the training wheels are off and you are trusting each other to dance with chaos a bit more. There are no obvious railway tracks, just the structures inherent in nature itself. Our natures. Suddenly you can take flight into a slice of human life reflected through the frame of some shared hours in a theatre. Suddenly improvisation can be about the human condition and life itself… our struggle to manage chaos, for example.
2-prov is creeping us ever closer to the void. Though still humanoid and in satisfyingly bite sized chunks. It is my improv medicine. I wonder which is yours?
Obviously it helps if your 2-prov partner is Katy Schutte. Katy is one of the most skilled technicians I know. Incredibly adaptive, magical, receptive, sharp, satisfyingly decisive and happy to be an idiot – sometimes all at the same time. What a gal!! My improv wife. She is the flood-banks to my louche, fluid, animal, chaos, sensate, river thing. I know I will always be caught by her. I know I will catch her in which ever way she throws herself at me. That is unceasingly beautiful. And that’s it really.
Because if love isn’t in it, you’re in the wrong game.
Go away and don’t come back till you can bring some of that shit.
Choose the right improvisation partner and you are no longer just a loner going mad in the desert.
There are two of you. You’ve got this other girl / guy.
And she’s got you.
You don’t need the city,
You need each other.
You are all there is,
(and maybe a tent and a fire and some stars in the distance)
it is what you are made of that is creating the material
and the third thing, the magical, ever unfolding present.
so you’d better get on with it.
Get on with it!!
Time won’t wait!!
Image by Elizabeth Barnes, Rainbow Valley. Central Australian desert.