Impro as a Lifestyle

photo: Remy Bertrand

Recently, I’ve been taking theatrical impro classes which culminate in a public show, and they’ve sparked lots of ideas in me. Our teacher, Remy is extremely imaginative and adventurous, and so we never know exactly what we’ll be doing from one moment to the next. However, we do generally start the class with a warm-up.

An impro warm-up is designed to get us to a place where we are able to be open, creative, free, bold, natural, inventive, uninhibited. Once we are in that place, anything is possible. It doesn’t really matter how we get there. Recently, we were instructed to improvise several scenes and songs in Spanish, although most of us don’t speak the language. At other times, we will speak gibberish, or mime, or do one action while describing another. It’s more about what goes on inside us- allowing ourselves to experience that moment of daring, the pushing-through of the membrane that usually stops us emerging fully into life.

I’m finding this process extremely liberating, not only in class, but in life. I am more aware of the enormous range of possibilities that we have in any moment– what we say, how we react to situations spontaneously, how we are able to be creative at the drop of a hat.

In the past, I have been involved in some abusive situations, both personally and professionally. It took me a long time to extricate myself. Now I look back and wonder why I put up with so much, why I was so acquiescent. I see that I had many more options than I chose to use. I remember an opera singer who shouted at me viciously when I tried to give her feedback. A flat mate who blamed me for her constant mood swings, and tried to use personal information against me when I asked her to leave. Having been brought up to be “nice and polite”, I had unwittingly become a doormat. I had so many options and I didn’t realize.

One of the reasons we love to watch ‘flash mobs’ is that they do the unexpected in a setting where we’ve all been socialized to behave in a certain way. Someone bursting into song in an airport arrivals area or dancing the flamenco in a bank shows us what we are not doing, and could do. It takes guts, there’s no denying. It’s one thing to take part in impro on a stage with fellow improvisers, in front of an audience who are expecting to see just that. It’s quite another thing to behave in an unorthodox way in a shop or a restaurant. It breaks the codes we all have agreed to live by, and we fear looking “mad, bad or dangerous to know”.

I realize now that I’ve already been playing a character on stage for years, without really being aware of it. As a classical pianist, I was trained to walk on to the platform in a dignified and confident manner, acknowledge the audience with a charming smile, and sit down to play the piano as if it were the easiest thing in the world to do- even though at times I was so nervous I felt about to throw up, or my knees were trembling so much that it was hard to use the pedals. I could just as easily have played any other character, but I did what was expected of me because that was what being “a professional” meant.

It suddenly strikes me as amusing– all of us walking around in various personae, being a bank manager or a taxi driver or a teacher or a mother or a politician. We’re all just pretending. We could just as easily have chosen other personae. Yet at some point the wind changed and we got stuck like it.

So how about trying a few new personae on for size? It’s exhilarating. It’s the best fun in the world. And it’s unimaginably liberating.

Impro is how my three-year-old nephew spends his time right now. He carries little superhero figures around all day, creating scenarios with them and acting out roles. He is a supremely present, happy and energetic little chap.

I’m wondering whether impro could be used in situations where communication has become rigid and predictable– for example in personal or intimate relationships, or in professional relationships. Our teacher sometimes works in business, teaching people the uses of impro in professional contexts, and I’m wondering whether it’s possible to use it in more personal ones. I wonder what it would be like to communicate with a partner, boyfriend, child, family member from that place, and what would be necessary to get one into that space. The very idea excites me. What if I could use the skills I already have in combination with impro, for example in a workshop? It could be really wild and fun. It could be really deep and freeing.

What would it be like to live from that place, or at least to inhabit it on a regular basis? What would I be able to accomplish? Or who would I be able to be?

Sitting at the piano this evening for the first time in ages, I felt inspired to improvise, and was enjoying the sound of some complex harmonies when the thought crossed my mind, “Yes, but this is a bit derivative. “ Just one thought, but it took the edge off my joy and my spontaneity. And then I realized I hadn’t had this thought for a while. When you’re improvising onstage, there is no time to think about whether you’re being derivative. Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t. What’s more important is that you’re being free, spontaneous, and connecting with those around you, both on and off stage.

Suddenly it seems the stupidest thing in the world to worry about. I let the thought go, and return to enjoying my music-making. It occurs to me: what if letting go of worrying about being derivative results in a greater level of freedom– and then who knows what may emerge?

In impro, we don’t have time. And in the larger scheme of things, none of us really has time. With the recent catastrophes in the news fresh in my mind, I feel a great sense of privilege in being alive at all. People are leaving the planet in droves. So, as the poet Mary Oliver famously wrote,

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”