Friday, December 19, 2014

The Zen of Improv: Do "Good" and "Bad" Exist? (Non-Judgment in Improv, Part One)

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about  the mind-expanding, groovy side of improvisation and other hippy shit. 

The “Welcome to the Neighborhood!” gift I hope to give my beginning improv students is the freedom from judging their own work as "good" or "bad," at least for the first year. (And maybe forever.) I invite them to suspend all judgment of their work because I am starting to suspect that “good” and “bad” don’t exist in improvisation, particularly in class or rehearsal. When we de-brief after a scene, I like to ask, “What felt easy about that scene? What felt hard?” We are continually seeking the ease in improvisation, for I have been taught by TJ Jagodowski that the ease is where the beauty lies. As loyal readers know, I’m a big fan of the joyride. (Thank you, Susan Messing, who famously and lovingly said, "If you're not having fun, you're the asshole.") So I also like to ask, “Where was the fun in that scene? Actors, what was fun for you to do onstage? Audience, what was fun to watch?” But never do I ask, “What was good? What was bad?” because I don’t think that sort of evaluation is helpful … and, like I said, I’m not even sure “good” and “bad” exists when you’re just starting out. (I'm also not sure when "just starting out" ends, but I'll get to that a little later.)

My favorite parable on this topic is a well-known Taoist story of  the "Maybe Farmer," and this is the way I tell it:
A farmer's only horse ran away. His nosey neighbor came over to say, "Oh dear! I'm so sorry.That's terrible, terrible news. How are you going to bring in the crops without your horse? What bad luck." 
The farmer simply replied, "Maybe." (In some versions, the farmer says, "Who knows what is good and bad?" but I'm partial to the "Maybe.")    
The next day, the horse returned, bringing with it a whole bunch of wild horses. Where once the farmer had had only one horse, now he had many. The nosey neighbor again made is way over to congratulate the farmer on his windfall.  
"What good luck you have!" he said. "Look at all these horses! How wonderful! This is all so good!"  
To which the farmer simply replied, "Maybe." 
The next day, the farmer's son was thrown from one of the new horses while working on taming them. His leg was severely broken. Sure enough, along came the nosey neighbor.  
"I'm so sorry," he lamented. "Your son's leg is broken. Who will help you with the crops? What terrible luck. How very, very bad."  
And the farmer responded, "Maybe." 
Finally, another day went by and with it came the army, who was traveling the countryside conscripting young men into service. Because the farmer's young son's leg was broken, he was left behind. 
(Cue the nosey neighbor.) "Hoorah! What a lucky man you are," said the neighbor. "Your son was spared. Everything is good!"   
(I'm sure you know by now how the farmer responded. Say it with me, friends...)  

We’ve all done scenes in class, rehearsals, and shows that felt just plain shitty. They felt shitty because we choose to label them “bad.” But upon reflection or after a teacher’s feedback, we hopefully can see what we did that landed us in the shit muck. If growth came from it, was that scene really ultimately bad or good?

A few years ago, my troupe was in the midst of a string of really great shows. We had developed a new form called Shrink: Where Freud
Shrink: Where Freud Meets Funny
Meets Funny
, and the shows were feeling really terrific. We were doing a two-night run of this show at a local Fringe festival, and the first night absolutely killed to a packed house. Celebrating after the show, I definitely got wrapped up in what a “good” show it was, and I blew into the second show the next night still on that high. Fast forward 45-minutes … aaaaand let’s just say that high was now replaced with an equal and opposite low. (As I often say, “Life is a yin yang motherfucker.”) The second show felt not good at all. Really, really, REALLY NOT GOOD AT ALL. In my attachment to the former “good” show, in the second show I had forgotten to listen, share the focus, make my scene partners look good, and lots of other important stuff. I think I might have walked on some furniture and waved my arms around a lot too. My only saving grace was that I didn’t act like a pirate. (Though I may have blocked that part out.) Boy, did I feel like crap after that second show. I couldn’t meet my teammates’ eyes. I wanted to crawl in a hole and die. I definitely didn’t want to improvise again. That show felt “bad.” Really fucking bad, you guys.

But then after I crawled out of my big, fat pity ditch, I got curious about why the show didn’t go well for me. I talked to my teammates about what they saw and how they suggested the show could have felt easier and more fun. Turns out, I had played the whole show in what Patsy Rodenburg would describe as the “Third Circle,” where all my energy was shooting out all over the damn place, and I wasn’t allowing any energy to come in. (More on Ms. Rodenburg and her lovely circles in Zen of Improv: Seduction, Love, and Cucumbers.)  I had forgotten to both listen and react – the two cardinal touchpoints in improvisation. Years later, that show still stays with me with a cringe, and I learned a tremendous amount by it. I still feel quite dedicated to not doing anything onstage that will lead me to have that soul-sucking experience again. That “bad” show made me a better improviser. So was it a bad show? Or a good one? Or both? Or neither?!

“I haven't had a bad show in 25 years. Others might disagree, but I'm not there to judge you, the show, or, certainly, myself.” – David Razowksy from  Geeking Out with…David Razowsky 

If the goal of class is to learn or help others learn in class, there are no bad scenes.  Likewise, if we don’t learn from a “good” scene, could it really be called good? 

One last story and then I’ll be on my way. This one comes from Keith Johnstone, one of the pioneers of modern improvisation, with whom I was lucky enough to study for one afternoon very early on in my improv career. As I remember it, Mr. Johnstone told us about how he had decided to learn how to make a self-portrait by drawing one every day for an entire year. Around the 200th drawing, he looked at his drawing with a shrug. If it had been his 365th drawing, he might have judged it as “bad” because it didn’t meet with his satisfaction. But he still had 165 more opportunities to improve. That’s a lot! Hence, the shrug. "Who knows what is good or bad?"

Who knows how many improv scenes we are gifted with in our lifetime? But chances are, the next one isn’t our last. (Barring run-away buses, zombie apocalypse, and other such unsavory, premature ends.) If we are only a little ways into learning how to improvise, it may be too early in the process to judge our work. And if you live to 127, you probably are quite early in the process of learning. 

What would it be like to let go of “good” and “bad” in improvisation?

This is  Leandra Becerra Lumbreras,
who claims to be the oldest person alive.
 She looks pretty good for 127, don’t you think? 

“When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the slightest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.” 
 ― Hsin Hsin Ming

* * *
If you are so inclined, Part Two of The Zen of Improv: Non-Judgment in Improv is called The Mind Meanies
"those assholes in our heads who habitually conjugate "to suck."

Perhaps you may want to read more about that really cool 
"Second Circle" idea in

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?
Like the one where David Razowsky 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

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

1 comment:

  1. I agree "good" and "bad" can be killers. I find that as a writer, when speaking about new writing, asking readers to say what moved then, what spoke to them, what interested them, what engaged them and what they are curious about lets me as the writer know what makes readers light up and I am wondering if similar kinds of questions are useful in looking at scenes. I like the idea of getting a year as a student of improv before even thinking about evaluating how "good" what I am doing might be.