I love to take solitary walks in my quiet, wooded neighborhood. One morning, a car approached and the driver asked me if I had seen her dog, which I hadn’t. After she drove off, I thought about the woman’s polite, seemingly calm demeanor in the face of a situation that would have had me in tears. I imagined her having been raised to be polite above all else and to repress her emotions for the sake of civilized society. After interacting with this stranger for mere seconds, I was constructing her imaginary life for my own amusement.
A while later, another car approached and this time a man asked about the dog. He was also polite and I imagined he just didn’t care about the dog as much. Or did he really love that dog more than anyone else, including the woman? As he drove away, I considered these two individuals, both looking for the same dog, and I made a lot of assumptions for my own entertainment. Maybe one of them secretly hoped that the dirty dog would find a new family to live with. Perhaps he was tired of buying expensive food for her dog. Maybe she was jealous of his relationship with the dog. I walked and fantasized. It’s fun to imagine, isn’t it?
Yes, but what do daydreams have to do with improv? Regardless of your experience, you probably know that scenes with characters, relationships, conflict, and action come to life on the spot and in the moment. Players whip up new scenes right before our very eyes, out of thin air it seems.
So if improv happens in the moment, why am I spending my downtime imagining characters and relationships fraught with emotional drama? Because these fantasies inspire me.
When my teammates and I step onto the ComedySportz® playing field with nothing to work with but a Loyal Fan-provided suggestion like “banana,” creativity must happen in a moment’s time. Like MacGyver, reaching into his pocket and finding nothing but a paperclip and a pencil eraser to save the day in a race against the clock, I rummage through my own personal collection of experiences and perception of the world and in a second or two I must retrieve something brilliant. The clock is ticking and my scene partner needs me.
Remember the woman I imagined to be secretly jealous of the way her boyfriend loves the dog more than him? Because that idea has taken root in my imagination and I’ve continued to nurture it, some aspect of that scenario might make its way into a scene. The characters, the location, and everything else will be different but that underlying emotion might inspire something. Or maybe it is simply flexing my imagination to create something else entirely.
Perabo compares her own stored experiences to the contents of a reality television hoarder’s house.
“It includes every gesture you’ve ever seen a stranger make, every snippet of conversation you’ve ever overheard, every smile, every hand, every hat, every out of tune piano, every cheerful hound dog, every bowl of lukewarm soup.”
Perabo suggests writers train their imaginations, and I think improvisers can benefit from this practice as well.
“So you go there every day, several times a day,” Perabo writes. “Instead of checking Facebook, you sit some place quiet, maybe close your eyes, and you knock around your Extreme Hoarders house for 15 minutes. You familiarize yourself with its contents. You go into the rooms that are the most unmanageable. You dig through the top layer of stuff. Find what you’ve forgotten. Toss aside the things that are the most familiar. You look at something you haven’t looked at in five years, because it’s a new thing now, because you’re a new you now.”
I am making a conscious effort to nurture my imagination. During my morning walks, I root around in my mental house full of experiences. I recall something that happened in school. When I’m in line at the store or waiting for the server at a restaurant, I resist the urge to pick up my phone and check emails. I listen to the parents a few feet away, offering their child the option to take tennis lessons. I imagine their world.
Improv requires a curious mind and an active imagination. Fortunately, anyone can cultivate these qualities with some practice. Go ahead, give it a try.
Lisa Swope has been a Minor League Player at ComedySportz® since 2016.