Tuesday, November 11, 2014

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

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about 
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet

“Wu wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of ‘going with the flow’ that is characterized by great ease and awake-ness, in which - without even trying - we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.”

From the article
5 Wisdom Lessons Learned from Yoda

The first part of The Hardest Easiest Work skated along the surface of the idea of approaching improvisation as an acting of non-doing, which isn't about not doing but rather about opening ourselves up to not trying. If we indeed seek to improvise in a state of non-doing (aka wu wei), we’re performing naturally and in the flow without any effort. Sounds like a piece of cake, right? In fact, several improvisers I’ve interviewed, including TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, have said that improvising is, in their exact words, “easy.” In fact, recently Jason Shotts, of the glorious two-person show Dummy said in our Geeking Out with… interview, “Improv can feel magical, but it's not magic. It's a conversation. It's easy!”

And to that I’ve often wanted to respond, “Fuck. You. In. The. Eye. Easy?!?! EASY???? I’ve spent well over a decade focused on learning how to improvise well, and I’m only just now beginning to begin my journey. Easy? This shit is HARD, man. It’s work. I’ve spent thousands of hours and dollars learning to do it. How can it be easy??!?”

But saying fuck you in the eye to my Geeking Out with… partners is not conducive to having more Geeking Out with… partners, so I’ve learned to bite my tongue and translate “easy” in my brain for “ease-ful.” That is, full of ease. Without effort. A super fucking hard “easy” if you ask me. 

While I find it hard to directly teach someone how to "non-do" improvisation – that is, how to perform in an effortless way, in the flow, full of ease -  I can give my students the feeling of being in an effortless scene, so they get to know what that “wu wei sweet-spot” feels like and learn to recognize the pleasure of standing for a moment in the beatific sun-ray of the Great Goddess of Improv.

My friend
Laura Patrick of The Ha-Ha's
standing in the light
Hopefully, you have had experiences of that blessed sweet-spot, when you’re taking the joyride (TM Susan Messing) with arms outstretched in absolute pleasure, as the scene guides you along with no effort at all. That magical feeling. I really want every new improviser to feel that sweet-spot, so they recognize it when they start to feel the warmth of the “beatific sun-rays” in a scene, so they can go towards the light. (In a good way, not in a "I think I just died" way.)

Because that’s when improvisation feels the most delicious and effortless and incredibly fun, isn't it? I love being in a scene and thinking, “I can’t wait to find out what happens next!” as the Goddess is behind the wheel and I’m just along for the heart-expanding ride. That feeling of surprising yourself with the words as they fall out of your mouth. The magic of “Yes, and …” leading to the discovery of something beautiful created together with other improvisers and the audience on the razor’s edge. Though the razor’s edge feels as cozy as a flannel nighty.

(Woah. Sorry about that improv porn sexy time moment up there. Hope it was as good for you as it was for me. Ok, where was I? Oh yeah. The wu wei sweet-spot …)

Recently, I lead an exercise in class in which folks had a simple, un-actorly conversation onstage, with the secret objective being to give students experiences of effortlessness and ease-fulness onstage. It was inspired by an exercise TJ Jagodowski taught in a workshop, and I’m sure he’d think I’m teaching it wrong. And maybe I am. In any case, I’ve cooked up my own version that serves my purposes even within the limitations of my fallibility. Suffice it to say, in my exercise, the participants have a natural, un-improviser-y conversation onstage. Real. No jokes or heightening or setting the who/what/where or whatever. The last time I did this exercise, my students’ conversations  were compelling and natural and honest and, as it turned out, often funny. By the end of the class, these newly-hatched improvisers had just presented forty-five minutes of Good, Solid Scenework. (Their conversations were really scenes! Surprise!)

One of my favorite moments was when two students were improvising a scene in which they were chatting in a bathroom. During one small moment, one improviser (a guy) peeked under the “toilet stall” his stage partner was in, causing her to reflexively squealed in embarrassment. That moment was BEAUTIFUL! A totally honest reaction. Unplan-able. Totally authentic. Completely natural and uncontrived. Effortless. Spontaneous. And, like a cherry on top, we all laughed. Little moments like that are what improvisation is all about to me. A brief moment in the sun-ray of the Great Goddess of Improvisation. Amen.

I shared my reactions as we debriefed after the scenes, and one of my students cried, “But we weren’t even improvising!”


It's so simple. So complexly simple. Improvising is the hardest easiest work around. 

[When you read this, replace “practice” with “improvise:”]

“Let this or any other time you practice be your time for letting go of all doing, for shifting into the being mode, in which you simply dwell in stillness and mindfulness, attending to the moment-to-moment unfolding of the present, adding nothing, subtracting nothing, affirming that ‘This is it.’”

From Wherever You Go, There You Are:
Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life
by Jon Kabat-Zinn

So easy, right? Fuck. Me. In. The. Eye. 

* * *
You may want to check out 

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?
Like the one with Jason Shotts where he says,


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 www.pamvictor.com.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment