The Zen of Improv

Sadly one of our blog elves, Lisa “Swippery” Swope will be leaving Richmond and heading out west. We hope that after a short sabbatical, she’ll return to the blog team contributing from afar. Her passion for writing and editing has truly enriched this blog. Lisa, this one’s for you. Cheers!

Alan Watts was recognized as being one of the first people to interpret Eastern Philosophies for the Western audience. I found it intriguing when I came across a twitter feed dedicated to his thoughts, how much they echo the philosophy of improv.

His talent as described by the LA Times: “Alan Watts had the rare gift of ‘writing beautifully the un-writable’. Watts begins with scholarship and intellect and proceeds with art and eloquence to the frontiers of the spirit. A fascinating entry into the deepest ways of knowing.”

Watts captures the essence of living in the moment with quotes that are as eloquent as they are concise...

“I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.”

With improv, we try to avoid talking about the future and the past. Rather we focus on the present, the relationship with our character, and our scene partner. We take action rather than talking about what we might do. We act in the now at let our imagination integrate our character’s past and unfold their future, moment by moment...

“No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.”

One way to kill a scene is for one improviser to try and direct the other. It makes it an awkward experience for both. Rather, we as improvisers take turns adding pieces to an emergent story. Having a preconceived plot in mind may catch a quick laugh but quickly turns a scene into a mental arm wrestling match. We also look to add detail to the scene to make it richer and more engaging for the audience...

“When you get free from certain fixed concepts of the way the world is, you find it is far more subtle, and far more miraculous, than you thought it was.”

A scene is a tiny story built in the moment involving characters with aspirations on a journey taken with purpose. A scene may be a vignette within a larger journey. As improvisers, we learn the importance of moving the story forward. The characters enter and leave the scene adding to the reality, making it the playful play that it is. For a scene to be engaging, something must always be changing in the journey and in the relationships of the characters because...

“The more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless.”

Stepping onto the stage, with only a suggestion and a partner, hoping some story will flow is an act of faith and trust mixed with a healthy measure of anxiety. If you have ever seen an otter move from land into the river you can see what it is like when an accomplished improviser moves from the “land” to the stage…

“To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.”

Improv can be full of energy and sometimes frenetic. The need to find something funny can overwhelm the life the characters are living, mediated through their relationships. It is equally as powerful when the improvisers dwell in a short silence. It allows them to reconnect with the new reality and figure what is now true...

“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”

Believing in our characters comes from caring about the scene and, in a way, empathizing with our characters. We also need to care about our scene partner. We are always looking to give our partner what they need to shine and “Yes, and”ing the additions they offer...

“So then, the relationship of self to other is the complete realization that loving yourself is impossible without loving everything defined as other than yourself.”

Lisa, we hope that wherever your journey takes you, that the echoes of our appreciation for all you have gifted your team and this blog will reverberate within you forever. We say farewell, but never goodbye. We leave you with this one last thought...

“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a [gosh darn] death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.” Alan W. Watts (1/6/1915 - 11/16/1973)

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