Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Zen of Improv: Extreme Geekiness, Non-Doing, and Clover

by Pam Victor

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

This may be the improv-geekiest Zen of Improv piece I have written so far. Though there may be some useful stuff in here for “Normals” (as Susan Messing calls non-improvisers,) this post is pretty flippin' improv-specific because I’m writing about the warm-up game Clover and how it serves as a practice of the most Zen-like skills in discovery-based longform improvisation. If you don’t know or care what discovery-based longform improvisation is, I love you and I respect you and you might like a less improv-dorky Zen of Improv piece, like this one here about how to make sweet love to your fear.

Ok, the Normals are gone, bless their dear hearts and audience-bound butts. Now let me tell you about a moment in class with one of my longtime students.  We’ll call her Lola. (That’s not my student’s real name; it’s my go-to fill-in-the-blank name because of the curvy way it rolls off the tongue and the deep hip sways it takes into the ear.) 

“But sometimes I don’t know what to do next,” Lola confessed recently as we embarked upon some scenework. At first I was flummoxed at Lola’s question because the main focus of our classes has been variations of the “just take the next little step” approach, which I learned while co-writing Improvisation at the Speed of Life with TJ and Dave. How could Lola not know that all she has to do is take the next little step by responding honestly and logically? But, hey, let’s give Lola a break. I realize that exploring improvisation (and life) is a continual re-visiting of the same basic questions over and over from a place of increased experience and awareness. So I looked at Lola for a beat, thinking about what brings her joy, before answering. Clover. Lola loves the warm-up game Clover. You’re in a scene and not sure what to do next? Think Clover, Lola.

Clover is a word association circle exercise in which we come back the original word three times, like cars putt-putting along a highway clover. The group stands in a circle. I ask for a suggestion, “Name a noun.” Let’s say someone responds, “Spinach.” The whole group says in unison, “Spinach.” Then Person 1 word-associates (yes, it’s a verb) off of "spinach" to the person to their right. “Green,” says Person 1 to Person 2. Now Person 2 associates off of "green" only; not off of "spinach," although, obviously, spinach and all words that are said will remain in our consciousness. That part is important: Only associate off the word said previously. So Person 2 hears "green" and wonders, “When I hear ‘green,’ it makes me think of …” and they say whatever pops into their head. Let’s say, Person 2 comes up with “Kermit the Frog,” which is great because it shows that Person 2 was just listening to the word "green" and not thinking about spinach. 

Then maybe Person 3 hears “Kermit the Frog” and says, “Miss Piggy.” Was that what you were thinking too? Good. The word association doesn’t have to be something clever or earth shattering. It’s just what comes into your head at that moment. There are no wrong answers. Your response should be the next logical, natural word that comes to mind. Which doesn’t have to be funny or entertaining or witty.

Though there are no wrong answers, I will say that the less-right answer would be a created joke or a forced return towards the original word. If Person 3 hears “Kermit the Frog” and goes straight to “leafy greens,” that feels forced because the association is not apparent (to me, at least). In fact, when the group finally does return to the word “spinach,” it should be such an obvious next-step association that the whole group says it in unison. It might take a while, but with careful listening we’ll always get back to the original word sooner or later. It usually takes 10-20 people to get there – and we don’t have to get there exactly when we’re back at the start of the circle. It happens when it happens, but, eventually, we will hear the words getting back almost effortlessly towards the reality in which spinach lives.

To follow our example, let’s say we associate around the circle thusly: Spinach -> Green -> Kermit the Frog -> Miss Piggy -> ham -> stage hog -> hook -> alligator -> lake …

Now some folks in the group might start getting bright eyes and little smiles at this point because they’re listening really carefully and foreseeing patterns of association. (Usually, the bright-eyed people are on the other side of the circle from where the word is being associated, and I’ll get into why that may be in a little bit.) They're getting turned on because “lake” could bring us logically and honestly to “algae,” which might get to or towards “spinach” again. (Likewise, earlier, “stage hog” could have lead to “eggs” which could land us more in the reality in which “spinach” might come up again. That's a little early in the game to come back around, but you never know how it's going to go.) The more Clover we play, the more a groupmind starts to develop in which we learn to connect the dots in the same way. 

Eventually, we’ll get back to “spinach” again. And then we’ll cheer madly and set off on a whole other round of associations until we get there again. Spinach -> Popeye -> olive oil -> Italy -> vino …etc., etc. until we get back to “spinach” a third time. 

All of this word-associating is done in an unhurried, easy spirit of effortlessness, where we’re discovering rather than inventing our way back to the original word. It’s a bit of a mind fuck – to get back to the original word without trying to get back to the original word. To me, the most beautiful element of Clover is what I call Skating the Razor’s Edge of Non-Doing. We are allowing ourselves to get back to the original word without engaging in actively doing or trying or striving. Non-Doing is different than not doing. As Chuang Tzu is said to have said, “Non-action does not mean doing nothing and keeping silent. Let everything be allowed to do what it naturally does, so that its nature will be satisfied.” 

Rather than trying to get back to the original word, we’re simply not making effort to get back to the original word. It’s a state of what I like to call “easefulness.” It’s not always easy to get back to the original word, but it should be ease-full. We are simply noticing what is happening already without judgment. We are listening for where the exercise is going naturally, and taking those opportunities to grease the wheels, so to speak, to make it easier to get closer to our original word. Skating the Razor’s Edge of Non-Doing in Clover is that eye-crossing balance of trying without trying. Of listening for opportunities that arise which move us naturally towards the original word. The razor-edgiest part is that eye-brightening sensation of recognition and natural association, which is quite different than an external, exerted force. 

This is where “good” and “bad” ceases to exist in our practice because oftentimes our mistakes teach us more than our successes in Clover. So don’t cringe after you say your word. I promise it will help us get us to where we’re going already. The only cringe-worthy move is when you allow your judgment or your need to entertain to get in the way of the exercise. Riding the Razor’s Edge of Clover is something you need experience over and over. You’ll need to make forced moves that feel a little icky in order to get the feel of easeful moves that feel naturally discovered in that lovely “Aha!” way. It's all good. Even the bad. (So it's neither good nor bad.)

To get to the "Aha!" in Clover, we need to open ourselves up to where the moment is going. Let’s get back to that first Clover leaf of “spinach:” Kermit the Frog -> Miss Piggy -> ham -> stage hog -> hook -> alligator -> lake … 

My dad lives on a lake where I swam a lot as a child. In order to get out to a comfortable swimming place, I’d have to squish through thick layer of ooey-gooey algae that reeeeeally grossed me out. So when I hear “lake,” I feel that oozy algae feeling between my toes. That’s a visceral, natural response for me. (Though for you, that association might be different.) When I heard “lake,” my eyes brightened because the association to "algae" magically lit up in my mind. The Razor’s Edge is recognizing the connection between “algae” and “spinach,” and greasing the wheels to make it easier to get us there, which might happen automatically or might take a few turns. 

Or it might veer away altogether without getting there, which is why you might sense a little deflating energy in the members of the group who were anticipating the connections. When that happens, it’s important to see where the associations are now going without judgment. Because judgment will only get us into our heads – “Ah, man! That dude said the wrong word!” No! If we’re having that thought, we’re wrong, not that dude. Because we’re not paying attention to the present moment when we’re so busy judging what’s right and wrong. So maybe “lake” took us to “boat.” That’s a good time to think, “Ok. That just happened.” (Not a screw up. It just happened.) Here we go back around the circle ...

Boat -> sailor -> rum -> mojitos -> mint -> greens -> spinach! 

See? If we hadn’t gone to “boat,” we wouldn’t get to experience mojitos. I don’t know about you, but I always enjoy the opportunities to think of mojitos because mojitos make me happy!

“Do you have the patience to wait 
Till your mud settles and the water is clear? 
Can you remain unmoving 
Till the right action arises by itself?” 
― Lao Tzu

Speaking of things that make me happy, let’s get back to my student Lola, and her concern that when she was doing scenework, she sometimes didn’t know what to do next. “You love Clover,” I told her. “So let’s just apply all the great stuff we practice in Clover to your scenework.” And that’s what lead us to discover a structure I call The Clover Montage, which is a round of Clover followed by a series of scenes in which all we have to do is respond naturally and honestly to what was said just before, while listening for opportunities to make connections. Again, all we have to do is respond to what was just said, even if that means we spend some time at first repeating what was just said by our scene partner during the scenes.

“I love spinach,” Person 1 says.

“You love spinach?” Person 2 responds with whatever natural emotion that statement produced.

Good listening! That repetition helps us focus not only on an emotional point of view but also on the last thing said, which is exactly where our focus should be in Clover. As my former iO teacher Lyndsay Hailey says, “The last thing said is the most important thing said.” And in Clover Montage, we practice discovery-based improvisation by simply responding one little step at a time, honestly and logically, without effort to the last thing said.

“Discovery is the path of least resistance, a state of not-doing and ease rather than force and effort … It’s a mindset to go with the simplest move. The show is a river we slip our canoe into and follow where it takes us. The path of least resistance asks, ‘Why would you paddle in some other direction? Let the river take you where you need to go.’”- From Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book

The whole idea of the Clover Montage is that we use all the same muscles we used in the Clover exercise and apply them to our scenework. I'm in love with this process because it helps us practice easefulness and non-doing in improvisation, plus a whole host of lovely skills, such as:

There are no wrong answers. Your natural and logical association is valid. Just as “lake” might not get us to “algae,” it still will take us along another equally glorious path. (Mojitos!) Likewise, your natural and logical response to the last thing said by your scene partner is the perfect thing to do next. If you’re responding honest and logically in keeping with all that has come before it in the scene, it cannot possibly be the wrong response. Ah! That feels so goooood.

Practice Non-Judgment. In Clover, we’ll often see people give their honest association and then clench up like a little piece of poop almost popped out of their butt. They judged their answer to be wrong. But that’s preposterous because - as we just said - if we’re saying the next honest and natural thing, it can’t possibly be wrong. We don’t know where it will lead. The scene/exercise isn’t over yet, so we don’t know how it’s all going to all play out. Our judgment only puts us in our heads and takes us out of the moment, where we really need to be to hear what happens next. Clover gives us lots of chances to practice non-judgment and to unclench our butt cheeks.

The Other Side of the Circle Thinking In the exercise Clover, I often notice that we are at our most easeful when the word associations are taking place at the other side of the circle. It’s not yet our turn, so it’s easier for us to get into a state of relaxed, effortless non-judgment where we’re more open to where the moment is going. That’s what I mean by "The Other Side of the Circle Thinking." I wonder what it would be like to have The Other Side of the Circle Thinking when it’s our turn?

Take Your Time.  Clover isn’t a speed round. There is no rush to get back to our original word in the exercise or in the scenework. In fact, trying to hurry ourselves along only puts us in an unhelpful state of effort. Sometimes coming up with the next thing to say comes to us right away. And sometimes it takes a brief pause of reflection. Both are just fine.

Have Faith.  I have played Clover a lot, and there definitely have been moments with some groups who are first learning the exercise when I’ll sneak a peek at the clock because it seems to be taking us forever to get back there. (Surprisingly, it doesn’t happen a lot.) But  no matter how long it takes (or doesn’t take,) we’ve always gotten back to our original word. Always. And often it’s the most thrilling to experience that sinking feeling of look-at-the-clock doubt, only to have us soon find our ways back at our original word like magic. The same thing happens when we trust in the scenes to uncover patterns and connections. Clover helps us practice the faith and trust in the group that is necessary for skilled improvisation.

Listening Carefully to Where the Scene/Exercise/Moment is Going Already  Like that canoe from the book quote up there, Clover gives us the opportunity put our undivided attention where the words and moments are taking us. So we pull in the paddles and ride that river where it’s going, perhaps leaning gently from side to side to ride the razor’s edge back towards connections.

Honing Group Mind The more we do Clover, the more our group mind develops. We start to see patterns and connections in the same way. Do a round of Clover, then mindfully do a simple series of scenes (a Clover Montage). You may find that it almost seems as though you’re reading each other’s minds because you’ve gotten so good at learning how this group explores patterns that come up. Also when the circular nature of the exercise is applied to scenework, we find that our worlds take smaller, more honest steps from one moment to the next, so we're much less likely to wind up in Krazy Town. Our worlds stay smaller and connect more naturally when we're Clover along the way.

Maybe you might even want to sprinkle some Harold in your Clover Montage by doing a Clover exercise as the opening, followed by a first beat of three scenes, all starting from the original word. Then a second beat re-visiting those three scenes. And then a third beat in which we totally pull the paddles in the canoe and just ride the show where it wants to go by listening and responding honestly and logically given all that has come before. Maybe that's a Clover Harold? Maybe that's just what a Harold is anyway?

Listen with your mind, heart, and gut.
Respond honestly and logically.
Without effort or judgment.
Without trying to entertain or be funny.
With easefulness.
Discover the patterns as they emerge.
Ride the show where it is going already.
Have faith that we’ll get there.

(Thank you, Lola.)


If you are interested in exploring some 
more Zen of Improv pieces, 
you might enjoy reading more about non-doing:

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?


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

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