What “dying” in Improv taught me about our pursuit for fulfillment
I secretly hoped taking Improv class would make me funnier.
But it has taught me some surprisingly profound things about being an artist and living life.
We recently started scene work (read: actual Improv!). In our first day, an odd pattern emerged: while the scenes always began in everyday settings (co-workers at an office, roommates on the couch) they always ended in crazy ones. Alien apocalypses, twisty affairs, and death.
Lots and lots of death.
Our instructor noticed it too, and he sat us down to shed light.
In an attempt to make our scenes engaging, he observed, we were trying too hard to make them dramatic. This was a common mistake among amateurs, in response to our underlying fears of being boring.
At the heart of our actions was the assumption that being who we were wasn’t enough for an audience. This was why we would mutate a scene about office chatter into a lovers’ dispute, a scene of roommate bonding into alien possession.
The assumption that being human wasn’t enough, our instructor assured us, was fallacious.
Who wants to see and listen to a bunch of humans doing human things?
Well, other humans.
At the core, human beings are deeply interested in other human beings.
Our instructor insisted that we go for obvious and simple. This took us a while, but as we integrated more everyday moments, we found— to our surprise — these were often the most interesting ones. Routine actions created opportunities for authentic reactions, and authenticity is engaging.
In a story of a grand burglary in the Vatican, the best scene wasn’t the one of the burglary or electric chair (yes, we still had a lot of deaths) but the one involving the Pope admiring his diamonds.
To engage the audience, we didn’t need to bombard them with continuous twists. We just needed to allow ourselves to sink into the moment, to become aware of that around us and react to it. Audiences liked dynamic moments, but dynamic didn’t necessitate explosive.
This class got me thinking about the parallels to our approach to life.
Just as we chase the dramatic moments in Improv, we tend to chase those in life — moments of high excitement and stimulation. For example, it is not uncommon to go through the bulk of one’s routine unconsciously, coming alive only for brief interludes of jam-packed plans.
But the bulk of life isn’t jam-packed plans — it is everything in between.
“What most people do — is they’re waiting for the big, ecstatic experience… [for] transcendence and redemption and grace and all the big themes we’re all chasing.
[But the key is to learn to be engaged in the valley.] If you can pay attention in the valley, then you’re going to have no problem paying attention on the mountain” (Rob Bell, Magic Lessons).
In Improv, we learn that the most interesting moments aren’t the overly shocking ones but the deeply human ones. The very scenes our instincts steer us away from for fear they are too mundane are the same ones that can evoke the most engagement.
In the same vein, to craft fulfilling lives, maybe it is less about pressuring ourselves to chase bigger and bigger plans and more about learning to re-engage and appreciate the in between.
It’s easy to think of other people’s lives as enveloped in excitement, because those are the moments people selectively broadcast. The grass seems greener than ever on the other side when we’re looking at specially-saturated-and-filtered uploads of the grass. However, even the most glamorous lives consist of some difficult and mostly ordinary moments.
Like many, there is a part of me that craves the extraordinary. However, I am becoming increasingly convinced that my best self arises when I devote attention to the ordinary. My best work and moments of flow come to fruition only when I stand firmly in the present.
As noted in the Tao Te Ching,
“He who stands on tiptoes doesn’t stand firm”.
To live a life on tiptoes always anticipating the next mountain means missing the ample opportunities for flow and engagement in the present moment. And this ultimately is the true tragedy, because the present moment is the one and only place Life has and will always meet us.