Friday, December 26, 2014

The Zen of Improv: The Evil Mind Meanies (Non-Judgment in Improv, Part Two)

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

Improv big guy Joe Bill calls the first 15 - 30 seconds of a scene the “Golden Time” –  which he defines as the time it takes an improviser to hate what they’ve just said. We’ve all gotten off the stage and thought, “Well, THAT sucked.”  (Haven’t we? Please tell me it’s not just me???) And come on, let’s just admit it, we’ve all been in scenes and shot eyeball-daggers at that dude onstage who we were absolutely convinced was the one really stinking up the show. 

That’s a lot of judgment. A lot a lot of judgment. We judge our scenemates when we’re in the show. We judge the performers when we’re in the audience. And if you're anything like me, we judge ourselves the most. I call these "I suck" thoughts the Evil Mind Meanies, those jerks in
our heads who habitually conjugate “to suck: I suck, you suck, he sucks, she sucks, we suck, you suck (plural), they suck.” (In French, that’s “je suck, tu sucks, il suck, elle suck, nous suckons, vous suckez, ils/elles suckent.” Though I could be mistaken about whether "suck" is a regular or irregular verb; I truly do suck at French verb conjugation.) 

Our internal voice of unhelpful judgment seems to be a normal part of human existence. I've taught improv to approximately wadzillion people, and no matter how accomplished they are, it seems their first instincts tend to be some variation of "I'm going to suck at this." So we can't avoid these Evil Mind Meanie thoughts. Indeed, I actually think they come from a good place, a wayward impulse to protect ourselves. And though we may never be able to turn off the Evil Mind Meanies' message, we can turn it down.

First, we can say, "Thank you. Now shut up." Thank you, because we're thanking the Evil Mind Meanie for trying to protect us. And shut up, because that message is unhelpful to us at that moment.

The next thing we can do is remember this: THE EVIL MIND MEANIE IS A LIAR LIAR PANTS ON FIRE LIAR. Those unhelpful judgments are beliefs, not facts. 

Tune in to further essays for more tips for quieting that voice of unhelpful judgment. Oh, and take more improv classes. That's help a ton!

I’ve had people tell me that they didn’t feel they could be any “good” at improvising. Some of these people had taken an improv class or two. Many had not. These folks have insisted that they could “never be good at improv” because they’re not good at “thinking up” interesting scenarios. (That’s a good thing! Because I have been taught that we don’t have to think up anything in improvisation; we only have to notice what is already there.) They say they’re not funny. (That might not be such a bad thing either, in my opinion.) They say they’re not fast on their feet. (Good! They get to learn a new skill that is easy to get better at with practice.) These aren’t people who are aiming to audition for a Harold team at a big city theater. These are people who are thinking of taking an introductory improv class, who have already caved in to the message of the Evil Mind Meanies before they even took the first step.

“People suffer because they are caught in their views. 
As soon as we release those views, 
we are free and we don't suffer anymore.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh, 
The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: 
Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation

As I posited in Non-Judgment in Improv Part One, I truly and whole-heartedly believe you cannot be good or bad at improv during your first year (and maybe forever), particularly in class and rehearsal, by any standard or measurements. Though we may feel more or less successful during the journey, I strongly feel that believing the Evil Mind Meanies is ultimately counter-productive to the process. Improvisation is a practice, like yoga or golf or gardening. You can’t judge your skill as a yogi after your first downward dog. Tiger Woods didn’t say, “I’m a shitty golfer” and put down the clubs forever after his first swing. It's not fair to expect your little dirt patch to look like the cover of Awe-Inspiring Gardens Galore! after your first growing season. In fact, when you plant the seeds, you don't have any idea which ones will grow or not - there is that necessary ingredient of faith coming in! All you can do is plant a bunch of seeds, water them, and keep showing up every day to tend to the garden little by little. Some seeds grow. Some don't. That’s just how life goes, and even the back of the seed packet doesn’t promise 100% yield. Each season, you learn more and more about what worked and what didn't. Each season, you harvest more tasty veggies. Each season, some whither and die or get gnawed on by a naked mole rat or are blanketed in some fucked up mildew. But I know one thing for damn certain: You definitely can't plant a seed one day, come back the next day and call yourself a bad gardener because there isn't a full-size pumpkin waiting for you. 

It is exactly the same with improvisation. We can’t take a class or two (or three or four), get gnawed on by a naked mole rat onstage, and decide if we’re a shitty or spectacular improviser. Maaaaaybeee after a year of practicing, rehearsing, and/or performing at least once every week, then we can do some assessment. (Or maybe not.)

But that begs the questions, "When the time comes, how can we assess each other and ourselves in our work?" (I'm not entirely sure of the answer, and I'd love to hear your thoughts about it.) I know for sure where assessment can’t be done: Onstage. Recently, I had a show where the audience was real quiet. That’s how I chose to think of them when I noticed their response during the show, “Boy, these guys are real quiet.” They weren’t laughing a lot, but I wasn’t sure that meant they weren’t enjoying the show. When writing our book together, TJ and Dave taught me that if we judge a show by the laughter of the audience, we’re going down the wrong path, one that often leads us to make desperate choices out of fear. Since the worst seat in the house is onstage, I was in no position to determine if the audience was digging our shit the other night. All I knew they weren’t laughing a lot. But they weren’t grumbling or shifting in their seats either. They were quiet and attentive. They still seemed to be enjoying themselves. And even if they weren’t, the only thing I could do during the show to help – if the show even needed help - it was to remove my focus from something I had no control over (what was going on in the minds of the 74 people in the audience) and point it towards something I have some control over (the scene happening onstage). Let’s get out of the audience’s heads and pay attention to our scene partners and think, “Ok, where’s the joyride in this scene and how can I have the most fun ever?”

As Mark Sutton, the Artistic Director of Training and Development at The Second City, said in a class, “Your brain is incapable of creating and evaluating at the same time.” Personally, I tend to believe almost all of what Mark Sutton says, so I guess we aren’t even wired to evaluate the scene that’s happening anyway.  And even on the outside chance that Mark is wrong and we are capable of evaluating the scene we’re in, do we even want to? Is self-evaluation during a show helpful in having a “good” show? Does self-judgment during a show make it easier or more fun? 

Go see Improvised Shakespeare Company
immediately and repeatedly.
(I'm very serious.)
There was one Improvised Shakespeare Company show that I saw at iO-Chicago a couple years ago which I’ll hopefully never forget. During an early scene, one actor made a very non-specific reference when establishing a neighboring town. Since ISC works at the absolute tippy top level of improvisation across the board, this “failure” to be specific was noticed joyfully by the cast, who took it and ran with it. The generalized nature of this neighboring town became a central part of the plot, with whole songs improvised about that town, which the players gleefully referred to as having either hills or valleys or was seaside or landlocked and a flag that was either red or blue and populated by people who were either friends or enemies. (I’m sure I’m getting those details wrong. Many apologies to Improvised Shakespeare Company, but hopefully you get the point.) The show was very fun, incredibly entertaining, extremely hilarious, and astoundingly skillfully performed. It was also very beautiful … and it embodied for me the idea that a mistake doesn’t exist in improvisation until the show is over. It's only when the lights go down can we look back and perhaps judge if a move was “good” or “bad.” And even then, if it was “bad,” then maybe the blame rests not in the person who made a mistake but in the whole cast’s failure to make it “good?”

“A mistake is your greatest comic gift.”
- Susan Messing

And I suspect I’m even making a mistake right here by even suggesting we should judge our work at all. (Or is it a mistake? Maybe it’s not a mistake because it’s leading me to better thinking???)

But I’ll let you be the judge (or not!) next week inThe Zen of Improv: Letting Go of the Judgmental Bitch (Non-Judgment in Improv, Part Three)
* * *

In case you missed it and you're interested,

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?
Like the one where Geeking Out with....Joe Bill (Part Three) 
when he says, 


Pam Victor is an improv comedian, author, journalist, teacher, and nice person. TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book."  Currently, Pam is the Head of Happiness of Happier Valley Comedy, where she 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. 
She lives online at

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

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