Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Zen of Improv: Seduction, Love, and Cucumbers

by Pam Victor

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

What do seduction, improvisation, and Zen thinking have in common? Sounds like the set up for a joke: “A hooker, an improviser, and a Zen monk walk into a bar…” Go ahead, finish the joke. I’m sure you’re dying to. Put it in the comments of this post because I’d love to hear it. (I am super sucky at those type of games, but I’m sure the punch line is out there somewhere.)* While I’m waiting eagerly for your jokes, I’ll tell you that, in my opinion, seduction, improvisation, and Zen thinking have at least this one juicy thing in common: They share the goal of remaining fully present in the moment.

"When in doubt, seduce."
-Elaine May

I have to admit, I never completely understood this direction by early improvisation pioneer Elaine May (of Nichols and May and a woman who purportedly held great seductive powers over many men, including Del Close). Correction: I never truly understood “When in doubt, seduce” until recently when I watched this wonderful ten-minute video called The Second Circle by the delightful master voice and Shakespeare teacher Patsy Rodenburg, sent to me by my equally delightful student Karin. 

You should watch the video, but in the meantime I'll tell you that in it, Ms. Rodenburg defines her concept of “Second Circle,” which has been describe as “a state of mind and body where confident, relaxed control allows us establish intimacy and human connection where and when we want it.” In the video, she says the “Second Circle” has to do with being fully in the present moment in an “exchange of energy between two people.” It involves performing through “the give and the take of being present.” She’s giving advice to actors here, specifically Shakespearean actors I believe, but, like almost everything delicious, it applies to improvisation as well. In the video, she says, “If you want to seduce somebody, take them out to a restaurant and be in ‘Second Circle’ with them. Just be with them.”

::lady boner goes schwiiing!::

There is little better than being seduced by a frisson-arousing special someone … or, even better in my experience, being the active seducer of a frisson-arousing special someone. Imagine a whispery, laughy rendezvous where the warm summer wind blows lightly over your private table for two in a woody restaurant with Spanish guitar music and killer mojitos. A zombie apocalypse could happen and you’d be oblivious because your whole world becomes the other person’s eyes and lips and words. Not to mention that toe sneaking up your leg under the table. (So trite but it totally gets your motor running anyway, dammit.) That energy between you two is so palpable you could almost wrap yourself in it like a blanket. Your whole reality pinpoints into this total, shared focus between you two, where every look, word, laugh, eyebrow raise, and touch registers an eleven on your Richter scale. 

Next stop Orgasm City, amiright ladies?

Seduction brings you into the present moment like nothing else. “When in doubt, seduce.” Yes, Elaine May, now I understand that in order to improvise well, we should aim for that total focus of nerve-tingling awareness. Even when we’re doing a scene about who's going to clean up cat puke, I wonder what it would be like to improvise in the Patsy Rodenburg’s "Second Circle" where our voices speak from a place of relaxed, controlled connection with our stage partner, and with a keen awareness of the energy being exchanged between us? Pretty fucking hot. (Except for the cat puke.)

In the course of writing Improvisation at the Speed of Life, TJ Jagodowski told me that in his early days of improvising, he used to try to fall in love in every scene. With a person or an object or an idea. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of many scenes more fun than that falling in love or having someone fall in love with me. And I don’t think TJ was talking about only love-love, as in “TJ and Pam, sitting in a tree k-i-s-s-i-n-g ...” (In fact, I am absolutely, 110%, bet-the-bank-on-it positive he was NOT talking about that scenerio, even in a post-zombie apocalypse world.) What struck me about TJ's comment was the idea of improvising through the same spirit of laser-sharp focus that we have when falling in love. You. Me. The scene that is happening between us. That’s all that exists right now.

Susan Messing famously says, “Smell it touch it taste it feel it fuck it NOW.” Which is her super sexy way of reminding us to be in the moment. For Susan, that moment is visceral and tangible and horny. (Bless her sweet heart.)

To go to the improv world for one more example, my friend, colleague, and mentor Will Luera once taught me that if all else fails, you can try one of three things: 
Performing with Will Luera
at the Boston Comedy Arts Festival
in 2012 (
sans cucumber)

- Pull out a gun.
- Strongly saying “What?!” either very positively or negatively.
- Fall in love with someone or something. 

All those things bring us to the present moment between two people. If someone pulls a gun on you, you really can’t ignore that moment. You’ve got to deal with that shit, what’s going on between these two people, right here and right now. Same with dealing with their strong disbelief in what you just said – “What?!” - plus you’re forced to hear again what was just said and focus on it. And falling in love, as we’ve already said, is such an simply unbearably lovely moment you wouldn’t want to focus your attention anywhere else. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Will Luera enough to know that he doesn’t often do these things because he’s already usually concentrating the emotional connection of the moment. Though now that I think about it, I actually do think we’ve fallen in love onstage a few times … plus there was one seduction onstage in Detroit with the cucumber … 

Is it just me or is it getting warm in here?

Anyway, I think it’s worth taking a moment to think about how improvisers could evoke the spirit of those three things without literally pulling out your gun or your cucumber dildo. Improvisers can strive to evoke the spirit of seduction onstage. We can try to smell all the smells, touch all the touches, taste all the tastes, feel all the feels, and fuck all the fucks that are happening onstage right now. (What the fuck is “fuck all the fucks?” I dunno, but I think you know what I’m getting at here.)

"Love is of all passions the strongest,
for it attacks simultaneously the head, the heart and the senses."
- Lao Tsu

Although I don’t have a blueprint for how to fall in love onstage (or offstage for that matter), I do know I can’t access it through my head. I need my heart and all my other senses. If you’ve been around the hard block a few times, you’ve probably discovered that you can’t talk your way into falling in love. You can’t make it happen. 

Oh, wait a minute. 

Holy crap-on-a-stick. 

I just realized that falling in love is one of those non-doing things, isn’t it? You can’t TRY to fall in love, just like you can't TRY to improvise in the spirit and focus of seduction and love. You can only open your heart to it, watch for it to happen, and then dive in headfirst with a foolish, blind trust that you won’t be squashed flat with your guts pouring out of you like a horrid bug.

Ladyboner goes schwiiing?

*A few punch lines contributed by my pal Dana JayBein of ImprovBoston:

A hooker, an improviser, and a Zen monk walk into a bar...

Hooker: Wants money for sex
Improviser: Wants attention for sex
Zen Monk: Wants are bad, m'kay.
Hooker: Thanks for your money.
Improviser: Thanks for sex.
Zen Monk: Thanks for nothing.
Hooker: Pay me $500 and you'll come when I show.
Improviser: Pay me $5 to come to my show.
Zen Monk: What is pay?

* * *

Perhaps you may want to check out more about non-doing in

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?
Like the one where Dave Pasquesi says, 

What Would Improv Do? is the one-minute(ish) web series that wrestles with life's hard questions by using your improv super power.
This episode asks, "How do you know what your joyride is?"

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 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. 

All her crapola is at


  1. A Hooker, an improviser and a zen monk all walk into a bar.

    Several test bars and audience feedback later the stand up comedian shows up too.

  2. Hooker: Are you going to buy me a drink?
    Improvisor: How will I pay for the sex?
    Zen Monk: Which way to the monastery?

    I enjoyed the lesson on the second circle. I just finished The Presence Process by Michael Brown today. It's been an incredible guide to present moment awareness, and I can see some overlap in concepts between it and the three circles Patsy talks about.

  3. In improv, like in seduction, you are taking a leap of faith. You don't control what the other is going to throw back at you.

  4. I am a beginner improviser (1 year and a few months of experience). But I think that there has to be joy in the person doing the improvising or the seduction. And anxiety is the enemy of that joy. And I believe that the solution to anxiety is thinking correctly, for example, not judging ourselves for a bad performance, not torturing ourselves with pre-show anticipatory anxiety.

  5. “A hooker, an improviser, and a Zen monk walk into a bar…” The hooker says, "You wanna get laid?" The improviser says, "Sure, you be the hen and I'll be the egg. The Zen monk says, "Sounds good. I'll have the fried chicken and a poached egg."