Be present, available and obvious

Lessons from improv, part one

My notes from the first day of Dan Klein’s Beginning Improvisation course at Stanford. (“Yes, we shall” should be “Yes, let’s!”)

While a driving force behind the JSK Fellowship is addressing journalism questions to find new ways to adapt to changing landscapes, fellows inevitably use the year to work on something much more personal: themselves.

One of the many personal projects I wanted to tackle during my fellowship year was breaking down self-imposed social barriers. I want to be more open and less guarded, with less censoring of myself, especially in face-to-face, real-life social situations (not just on Medium).

Consequently, I signed up for Begging Improvisation in my first quarter. When other fellows learned this, many expressed envy at the supreme courage I exercised.

I did not see it that way, at least not for the same reasons. I’ve long been oddly comfortable with public speaking. Perhaps it stems from growing up as a PK.

More intimate conversations are what have bedeviled me. Those are where more meaningful judgments, from people who matter in everyday life, are formed. I wanted this class to push me past the constant self-evaluations and self-judgments that often hinder real connection.

And, it’s true, I did want to push past those barriers to let the inner comedian out. I wanted people to hear the clever thoughts that always seem to come a few seconds too late.

Don’t make jokes; make sense. Be obvious.

On the first day of class, instructor Dan Klein tried to disabuse us of the idea that being an improviser is about being clever. Be present; be available, he advised. Don’t try to be funny.

Improv is not about trying to be clever. It’s about being authentic and capturing the essence of our lives together. Often, that is humorous. We can surface and highlight the absurd. But it can also just be real, and, as with drama, there’s great value in that authenticity as well.

Klein maintained that being “normal” and “obvious” are not only acceptable in improv; they are often preferred. When we constantly strive for clever and avoid the obvious, we offer contributions that are jokes in themselves. They are closed loops that might elicit a chuckle and draw attention to the contributor, but they end the moment and forestall further humor and/or authenticity.

In her book Improv Wisdom, Patricia Ryan Madson (Klein’s predecessor and mentor, who also guest lectured for one of my classes) calls this “the fallacy of the fried mermaid:”

When improvisers ask for a suggestion, an audience member will usually scream something like “fried mermaid.” Everyone laughs, of course, since the weird juxtaposition of adjective and noun has already produced the humor. You can hear the buddies of the fellow who yelled it congratulating him on his wit. It is a closed loop, however. The joke is already over. Doing an actual scene about a fried mermaid isn’t likely to result in a very appealing story, if you think about it.

She concludes that chapter with the advice, “Don’t make jokes. Make sense.”

Later in the book, she quotes improv pioneer Keith Johnstone: “Dare to be dull,” and the Zen saying, “Cultivate ordinary mind.”

That perspective is enormously freeing. It take the pressure off. It removes the need to show off.

Make the most of the moment.

It also puts the focus where it needs to be for good improv, and I’d argue for most of life, and where Klein started the class: be fully present in the moment and be available to your fellow improvisers.

A focus on the present allows the improviser to optimize what’s currently available, rather than project into an imagined future or back to an idealized past in search of something better. Madson writes, “The improviser focuses on making that idea into a good one, rather than searching for a ‘good idea.’”

Staying in the moment allows improvisers to make the most of what’s available, to dig below the surface and find hidden truth or humor.

Emphasizing this point, Madson turns a common business and creativity trope on its head (emphasis mine): “Try thinking inside the box. Look more carefully.

It’s good advice for business creativity. One of my favorite d.school exercises involved imagining the worst attributes of a hypothetical airline and then turning them into positives. No seats? It’s a party or adventure plane.

And, again, this focus on staying in the moment and looking carefully for what’s valuable in the right here and now is good advice for life in general, especially in a culture/psyche partial to disposable goods and prone to nostalgia and envy.

Savor the details.

In her guest lecture and in her book, Madson recounted how a Japanese tradition around tea time emphasizes savoring the present. In this particular tradition, guests may only talk about what’s in the host’s house. No talk of politics or person problems is brokered. Participants must pay attention to the details around them.

She writes, “The tea saying Ichi go, ichi ei means ‘One time, one meeting.’ This particular gathering will never happen again. Live it now. Savor the detail.”

What is happening now?

Elsewhere in her book, Madson references journalist Brenda Ueland’s advice to occasionally ask yourself a simple question, “What is happening now?” Notice the basics. A friend is talking. I am quiet. Notice the details. Use all your senses.

This simple question guided me much of fall quarter. Anytime I found myself projecting into the future or dwelling in the past, allowing worry and self-recriminations to start taking hold, I asked this question. It encapsulated much of my reading on meditation, and in the interrogative, was more effective than the exhortations to “be here now,” “make the most of the moment” or “savor the details.”

Your presence is a gift. Show up.

Finally, being present is a gift to fellow improvisers and audiences. Klein emphasized generosity on the first day of class and throughout the quarter.

Madson writes, “Showing up is the key principle when we offer service to others. So often it is our presence alone, rather than some special ability that makes the difference.”

Carry it forward.

No pressure to be funny or show off. Merely showing up, being present and available, is a gift.

In truth, I never quite lost that inner critic. It’s hard to let go of self-evaluation. But nonetheless, I took enormous value away from the course (and I have more lessons to catalog).

At the most basic level, the course was a great mental-health break during my first quarter of Stanford, and my classmates (especially the CS majors) shared that feeling. Now, two other fellows are in the class for our final quarter, and they are effusive in their praise of the experience.

This week, I’m gathering fellows for weekly improv sessions, and I plan on incorporating improv exercises into courses I teach and into consulting engagements.

I don’t know if I’ll be any better as a teacher than as an improviser, but I know I can be present, available and obvious.

Lessons from Improv

Part One: Be present, available and obvious
Part Two: Ready, fire, aim. Repeat.
Part Three: Focus on giving
Part Four: Perfection is boring. The good stuff comes from taking (measured) risks.

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