Diary of an Improv Newbie: Don't Prepare


people talking near a fountain

During some conversation, you have probably prided yourself on giving 100 percent of your attention to the other person. You probably didn’t despite your best efforts. We are just not wired that way. Our monkey brain has developed the skill of taking turns that is the basis of a conversation. A turn may last a short two seconds. The gap between turns is a tiny one-fifth of a second. Not enough time to utter a syllable. This gap is quite similar across different cultures. Alas, the brain is not that fast on the draw and requires six-tenths of a second to pull out a word and one and a half seconds for a small phrase. Math is hard so I’m going to stop blogging for a moment to let that sink in. . . .

See the problem? In order to keep up this common cadence, your brain needs to start cooking up a response before your next turn. It has no choice. It plans ahead. But improv builds a scene by players observing, connecting, and responding. How then could I ever expect to stop responding so quickly to give me time to observe and connect? As Patricia Ryan Madson puts it in her book “Improv Wisdom,” “The habit of excessively planning impedes our ability to see what is in front of us. The mind that is occupied is missing the present.” This leads to the second of her thirteen maxims:

[ the second maxim] don’t prepare

By week two of my Adult 101 class, teacher Scott Ingwersen had run through a series of games that taught us the importance of not planning in improv. “Shatner” is a deceptively simple game that captures both the spirit of “say yes” of the first maxim with “don’t prepare”. The game consists of two players taking turns at saying the next word of a story mimicking the... halting...style...of...the...actor...William...Shatner’s...delivery.

It starts with a suggestion. The players build a story one word at a time, focusing on naming characters and establishing relationships, without any plan to direct it. My initial urge was to rush ahead in my mind and try and force the direction of the story to match where I think it should have gone. If my partner took the same approach the exercise quickly became more of an exercise in mental arm wrestling. A battle of egos overriding the potential immediacy of the story.

For me, a large part of my early learning was more about reversing ingrained habits. Disrupting the normal turn-taking cadence had an immediate benefit. When I didn’t prepare I could offer my full attention to what was going on in the game we played. The ego that propped up a need to control melted away to be replaced by an elevated sense of being present in the moment. In Ryan’s words, “Substitute attention for preparation. Then you will be working in real time. Focusing attention on the present puts you in touch with a kind of natural wisdom.”

Fast forward to a Saturday afternoon in Jim Zarling’s workshop titled “What's Going On.” Jim is a multi-talented performer who teaches, directs and performs at the Coalition Theater here in Richmond, Virginia. His workshop’s focus was at the other end of the problem scene spectrum. No one is planning at all but nobody can agree on what the scene is about or things keep getting added in the hope the scene becomes about something.

The first exercise required we repeat our scene partner’s sentence to force us to acknowledge what they said. The second forced us to take five seconds to look for key words in our scene partner’s last sentence and include them in our next response. The final exercise broke this newbie’s brain. In two-person scenes, we each had to complete the sentence of our partner in their character and start a new response in our own character. In all, a progression from listening to hearing our partner, to accepting their gifts and finishing with connecting with their character. The secret was again to put all of my energy into being attentive. It’s more than just listening although that was a big part of it. It was paying attention to the words, emotions, and actions of my partner along with what their character was about.

So often in the course of a conversation, we listen to respond instead of listening to hear. We sacrifice a chance to empathize with the instinctive need to win the round. Taking an attentive pause can make all the difference to a relationship, be it in life or improv. In Scott’s words, “We often feel rushed to continue the dialogue of a scene because we think silence is not entertaining. Of course, too much silence is awkward, but taking a moment to react to what was just said (observing) can let you process how you feel (connecting) and inform what you say next (responding) with greater effect, making your pause significant.”

Guy Winterbotham has been a Minor League Player at ComedySportz® since May 2017.

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