I like to leave my phone in the car when I go to improv class. I’ll park a few blocks away from the theater so I have to walk a little bit. There are normally folks without homes for the night setting up camp on the sidewalks, draping sheets over benches so they can place their bedding and belongings underneath. I walk past an office building on Lavaca Street and sit on the edge of a planter. I'll close my eyes and take ten full breaths to get ready to perform that evening. With each exhale I can hear the street noise around me more, then less. I can feel the cool stone of the planter underneath me sharply, then not at all. I can briefly remember all the things I wanted to say or do today, but they soon fade into memory of what actually transpired and memory, thankfully, dissolves into now. And for the next two hours, I get to be connected to now in a way I've not discovered in some time. I stand up, cross the street, and descend into the basement theater like it's the first time I've ever done such a thing.
Every class, my troupe and I take chances together - walking up in different pairs with no plans and a willingness to find out what happens. After we play for a while, if we've done it right, we will have hit on three beats of something funny and the scene will end, then another pair will take the stage to start with a clean slate.
I've spent the last few years faintly committed to a meditation practice with the hope of being more at peace and present. For me, I’ve not found another activity that necessitates presence more than improv. When I'm on a stage with another player and we've got to be fully there and ready to interact with whatever material the other player provides for the scene, I'm nowhere else. It feels like a miracle - like I'm a part of some magic trick being done in this instant that will never be done again.
Over several months, it's become clear how many parallels there are between the practice of improv and the practice of living mindfully. Several materials guide us this way: I love Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom, and the founders of my theater penned a great text called Improv Wins. This morning as I was cooking breakfast, what struck me was our ability to decide our default way of viewing the world as we start each day. If I'm not careful, most mornings begin either in a state of depression or anxiety. Self-talk ensues about how that one thing in my past is still affecting me or worried I am about something yet to come.
Many days I excuse myself for this behavior by recalling the research I've done on storytelling and how good stories involve conflict - especially internal conflict. Characters must endure depression and anxiety if they're ever going to change - this is a fact. We don't see movies about peaceful people, we see movies about folks who encounter catastrophe because that's what make for good cinema. I've used this rule to assuage the angst I've introduced into my life, realizing internal battles may, in fact, be a part of my larger (hopefully more meaningful) story.
I’ve leaned hard on this theory, but it’s impossible not to recognize how the idea of essential conflict has also given permission to some pretty negative emotions to persist each morning before I even start my day. Though bravely overcoming internal conflict may be good for the story arc of a life, it makes for a pretty depressing morning routine.
My improv instructor in a recent session commented on the beginnings of our scenes. He commented on how many scenes drift toward conflict - how we tend to initiate with observations about differences. The hallmark of many amateur improv scenes is their quick descent into argument, leaving fewer directions for the scene to expand. The magic of improv involves saying yes to anything presented. We've got a more exciting direction in a scene where the initiator says something about their delicious sardine sandwich and instead of saying, "Ew gross, sardines are smelly", the other player joins along and says, "Yes, I LOVE sardines - where can we find some more?” And then the characters go to a fish supply store together and investigate each fish tank without being seen by the store manager so they can steal some sardines, make their own sardine breeding farm in their living room and have a sustainable source of sardines to enjoy forever.
Spotting differences, taking sides and sensing conflict is a natural tendency - it’s our way of making sense of the world. This belongs, this doesn’t. It's easier to take sides and point out something we don’t like about one another or a situation. And if not easier, it's certainly what we've practiced the most. To be fair, it also can lead to some great material; scenes involving conflict and argument aren’t wrongly constructed, and the improv pros I’ve watched can turn arguments into beautiful moments on stage together. As a novice, however, I’m learning the value of agreement first on stage. Not to mention, it’s simply refreshing to witness a scene that begins with joy, happiness and agreement instead of opposition.
It's clear by the way I divide modes of living between story-based or improv-based approaches that I tend toward pretty dualistic thinking. I want certainty and I want to be sure the tools I’m employing are the right ones. As I'm trying to combat the desire to pick the right side and stick with it, I return to the juxtaposition I created between good stories and good improv. They both matter. Both the timeline and arc of our lives, as well as the smaller moments of today.
Robert McKee tells us stories are the currency of human contact and I continue to value the way we can bring purpose to our passing years by viewing ourselves as a character enduring an epic journey of conflict in order to get what we want - but it can't stop there. For, the resilience required to daily endure conflict also involves the ability to presently find joy in each moment. Though we may encounter seemingly unending seasons of strife, we also have the ability to hone a default perspective of whimsey and wonder each morning.
Growth means finding more alignment in the truth that two conflicting things can exist at once. In fact, for us to evolve in our thinking, we must. F. Scott Fitzgerald tells us, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
I like applying Fitzgerald’s thought because I've found myself in a similar situation as I compare life outlooks: conflict or joy. Story versus improv. And I've come to realize the harmony they can have with one another.
The stories of our lives are long and full of conflict, but the small moments of our days are improvised and full of opportunities for joy and connection. When we embrace the tension of both mindsets we learn to see two distances: today (now), and tomorrow (the future) woven together as one opportunity.