The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.
- Tina Fey, "Rules of Improvisation"Last night my lovely little Collegeville cohort had an unusual after-dinner treat: an improv workshop with an energetic and experienced improv coach.
It was horrible. No, that's not right. It was brilliant and insightful and loads of fun.
I was horrible.
We did a series of increasingly-complicated exercises designed to free us up and turn us into improvisational dynamos - or something like that. At first I'd know when my moment was coming, as we went around the circle taking turns. But part of the added complexity was not knowing when your turn was coming. You could be called on at any time and just have to run with it, whatever "it" was.
And my mind would go blank. When I knew when my turn was coming, my anxiety would advance like storm clouds on the horizon. When I didn't know when my turn was coming, I felt a sort of swirly panic.
One of the foundational rules of improv is to say "yes, and..." The first part was hard for me; you have to be quick enough to affirm whatever random thing is thrown at you. But the second part - being able to add something to the scene - gah. I couldn't do it. I'd stand there with my jaw dropped, totally paralyzed and distinctly aware that all eyes were on me.
I'm not a shy person. Nor am I an introvert (the improv coach teased us all about being introverted writers, but that isn't exactly the case for me). But there have been a handful of times in my life that I've been seized by social anxiety. The most pointed and painful was my first year of college, when I attended Bowling Green State University. The feeling of inexplicable panic and paralysis I felt last night is pretty much how I felt during the entirety of my time at BG.
It makes sense. The "script" of my life - the people and places that I'd known for eighteen years - was back home in Stow. In theory I liked the opportunity to reinvent myself, but in reality it was too much. In reality, my mind went blank. In reality, when I did muster the courage to speak, my own voice sounded foreign.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana has written a lot about improv, and, may I add, was really good at it last night. She claims it doesn't come easily to her: "My life’s constant spiritual challenge is to love what is rather than clinging to that flawless thing I’ve meticulously planned. It’s why I’m drawn to improv, which requires responsiveness and flexibility."
I so appreciate this willingness to go deeper into the challenge, to intentionally practice responsiveness and flexibility. My instinct is to run as fast as I can in the other direction from the need to improvise, in life and art.
The odd thing is that while I have some control issues (no need to pipe up with any vigorous affirmations, dear husband), I'm cool with going with the flow on most days. I do suffer with anxiety about the unknown, no doubt. But as I think about this improv stuff as it relates to my creative life - which was what we were implicitly tasked to do - I think about how much I cling to my sermon manuscripts, and how stubbornly I refuse to do crafts, and how freaking long it can take me to write one single sentence.
I don't like to fail. And I don't like to feel dumb. And while I don't mind speaking in front of groups - indeed, I rather love it - I will know every. single. thing. that I plan to say. I can facilitate a conversation pretty easily, but I reckon that has something to do with the fact that as facilitator, I have a particular role in the conversation, and that, in an of itself, is a form of "script."
One of the funny bonuses of being a pastor for me is the role it affords me. I don't have to be a person at large, scriptless and panicked when it's my turn to talk. In my small town, I'm not known by everyone by a long shot, but all I have to do is say, "I'm one of the pastors at First Congo..." and I'm safe. Or rather I feel safe.
Last night as we wrapped up the workshop, I turned to the teacher and told her about how my mind had gone blank. She laughed and quipped that if she were a therapist we would talk about why that might be. I didn't really have a "yes, and" for that comment either, so I thanked her and excused myself from the evening fellowship gathering for a night of isolated recovery in my room. Maybe I'm a bit of an introvert after all.