Friday, October 31, 2014

The Zen of Improv: The Hardest Easiest Work (Part One)

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about 

the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet

What can I try to do to be a better improviser?” This question came from a student of mine recently, and I laughed, knowing she was taking her first fall down the rabbit hole of a lifetime’s quest, the same one many of us will spend the rest of our lives slip-sliding down. I would put down good money on a bet that your top five most-admired
I've met so many
of those best people
down the improv rabbit hole.
improvisers still ask themselves that question from the bowels of the rabbit hole. “What can I try to do to be a better improviser?”

When my student asked me this question, I instantly knew I didn't have a pithy answer that would satisfy her. And the kick in the ass is that the only answer I have is one I barely understand. Because as far as I can tell, the only answer to how to try to be a better improviser is not to try to be a better improviser. Not to do. In fact, to actively (Hello, irony!) not-do.  

While we were writing Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book (And hello to you too, brazen self-promotion!), David Pasquesi was the one who most effectively taught me about the Zen idea of non-doing, which is a technique he and TJ Jagodowski explore quite exquisitely in TJ and Dave. You can read about it in more detail in the book; TJ has a quote in there about effortlessness that will make you jizz yourself. (And hello to you, unnecessarily nasty-girl promises!)
But the basic take-away I gleaned from my time with TJ and David is that the show is just fine as it is and any effort we put forth will only fuck it up. We can’t TRY to be funnier. We can’t TRY to be better listeners. We can’t TRY to be more skilled improvisers. Any trying we do ends up looking clunky and unseemly to the audience. Instead, the idea is to approach improvisation as an act of non-doing. Which is different than not doing anything. It’s about being fully present in the moment unfolding gloriously onstage. It's about opening ourselves to improvising well. It’s about not trying. I guess, it’s about just being.

If you'll patiently entertain the following woo-woo moment, we’ll leave TJ and Dave for the Taoists (or Daoists) and their concept of non-doing (Wu wei), which is "the action of non-action." (Excuse me while I probably blunder this explanation because it’s a pretty fucking big concept.) Non-doing involves the effortless doing, which you cannot try to pursue. Like many high school students before me, to understand this concept I turned to the simplicity of Wikipedia, which summarizes Laozi's explanation of non-doing in the Tao te Ching, "beings (or phenomena) that are wholly in harmony ... behave in a completely natural, uncontrived way. The goal of spiritual practice for the human being is, according to Laozi, the attainment of this purely natural way of behaving, as when the planets revolve around the sun. The planets effortlessly do this revolving without any sort of control, force, or attempt to revolve themselves, instead engaging in effortless and spontaneous movement."  

Go ahead and replace "spiritual" with "improvisation" (and I guess you should take out "Laozi" because I'm pretty sure there isn't anything about improv comedy in the Tao te Ching). Ok, now re-read. And weep. Because the goal of this type of improvisation is to perform in a purely natural way and behave in a completely uncontrived way without trying to control or force the scene. Playing in total harmony. Improvising effortlessly and spontaneously. "One way to approach this concept," according to the wu wei wisdom of Wikipedia, "is by eliminating unnecessary action, and doing what merely needs to be done." A dog trick as massive and elegant and simple as the planets revolving around the sun or a heart beating or a daisy blossoming.

Holy fuck, you guys. I’m so screwed.

Because to try to improvise, I have to not try. And in order to do that, I have to decrease the stuff that pushes me into trying too much, like fear that what I have already isn't enough. In order to train improvisers who will become more wu wei capable than I, the big message that try to impart to my students is we all are enough. YOU ARE ENOUGH. You have exactly what you need already the minute you step onstage (and in the room and into the universe). To hit the wu wei sweet-spot, we have to get on board with the idea that we have enough to improvise well right this moment without trying to do anything. In some ways, that's a no-brainer because I know for a fact that you, dear reader, are a unique person. You have some crazy-ass, true stories and compelling life experiences. You are pretty damn entertaining just telling your own truth. Your uniqueness makes you interesting to me (and the audience) by just being you. In the words of people far, far wiser than I, "There is nothing funnier than the truth" (Charna Halpern and Del Close, Truth in Comedy).

If you buy that this wu wei stuff, then you don't need to take the stage with a toolbox of clever jokes or kooky characters or ha-ha-hi-larious premises. At our most natural and effortless, we each bring enough to the stage to happily improvise successfully, even (maybe especially) when we're onstage folding sheets or lying on the beach or chatting across the back fence. In some ways, the hardest job is to trust in ourselves and each other that we already have everything we need to improvise well. And to trust in improvisation. Wu wei. Wooooo wheeee!

A Scrumptious Improv Quote
by David Pasquesi

Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, teacher, consultant, and nice person. She is the founder and Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, the epicenter of improv in Western Mass, where Pam teaches The Zen of Improv to the best students in the world as well as bringing the power of improvisation to the workplace in her "Through Laughter" program.  TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."   She lives online at

 Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.


  1. I agree with this article to some extent, but I think it's missing a very important piece of the puzzle.

    In order to be a "non-doer", we must first learn what to "not-do". Non-doing is a consequence of mastery, not so much the other way around.

    A classic analogy is driving a car. At first it's daunting. Pedals, gearshifts, nobs, mirrors, the steering wheel... Not to mention the rules of the road, from following street signs to knowing not to tailgate. With time, this all becomes second nature to us, and the act of driving becomes something of a wu-wei activity.

    But this flow state is earned. A beginner does not have the capacity to truly go with the flow, because they haven't built the muscle memory. First they must learn how to "drive", step by step. They must learn the rules. They must consciously make proper choices based on those rules. Finally, with time, these conscious choices will become burned into memory, and solidify in the brain. It's at this point that the decisions can become automatic and produced without conscious effort. This is what non-doing really is.

    Now, it is possible to get in your own way. With improv, we sometimes over think, because we don't trust our own *earned* intuition. We will never perform at our best when we're in our head. **But always being out of our head limits our capacity to learn**. Being out of your head will give you the best performance *at your current skill level*, but it won't allow you to become significantly better.

    What we can do to get better is to always stretch our abilities. Let's go back to the car example.

    A professional race car driver was once a clueless teenager struggling at the wheel of a family sedan. Eventually, they were able to drive like it was second nature. But when they decided to race, they had a lot more to learn. They had to consciously learn power shifting, cornering, when to apply acceleration and brakes for the best results, and so on. This was learned through "being in their head". With time, they were able to access a flow state on the race track, and be a champion.

    And if they want to be even better, they will go back in their heads to learn even more advanced techniques. Eventually these techniques will be accessible in a flow state, too.

    This is what learning is. Internalizing new ideas so that we can internalize more advanced new ideas. Each time an idea is internalized, it becomes second nature, performable in a state of unconscious "non-doing". This frees up brain power for internalizing newer ideas on top of the previous ideas. It is an unending, beautiful process.

    (And I do think being able to access a flow state on command is a skill of its own that is very valuable to learn).

  2. "YOU ARE ENOUGH" is a wonderful gift to give to students and experienced improvisers alike. Being incredibly critical of our technique and being in our heads belongs in a classroom space and in a rehearsal space, but by the time we get to performance I feel like the most effective way to succeed is by raising the performers' self-worth. They've gotta know that their ideas and contributions are more than valid and useful, but they've also got to know that they can come up with infinite amounts of ideas so that they're okay with letting go of their first thoughts when better paths present themselves.

    Yes, we should examine our work critically and figure out what we do that makes our lives difficult. In the moment of performance, however? We do need to find a way to let go of that critical voice and get into a state of "non-doing."