by Pam Victor
[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about
the place where improvisation and Zen thinking meet.
We tell Calvin to shut up and we invite Eunice to sing out. That’s the way we roll in my Zen of Improv classes. "Calvin" is the name I’ve given to my particular Evil Mind Meanie, the voice of judgment in my mind who is telling me that I, and everyone around me, sucks. (No offense to actual Calvins. That’s just the name I came up with. Real Calvins are swell lads, across the board. Feel free to pick your own name for your Evil Mind Meanie, Real Calvins. Why do I have the feeling you’re naming it Pam?) “Shut up, Calvin” is our code for quieting our judgmental selves. But Eunice … oh, sweet Eunice … we love Eunice so fucking much.
One day in class, I was crowing about how much we love your “you-ness” in improvisation, and one student misheard it as a lady’s name; hence, Eunice was born. Your “you-ness” is what makes you you. And it's your secret weapon in improvisation, the greatest tool in your toolbox, the light that makes you shine onstage and makes you look like an amazing actor. (If you can’t play you well, then you might have other fish to fry offstage before you start playing well onstage.) The greatest gift you can bring to improvisation is everything that makes you you, all the life experiences and feelings and vulnerability of your true heart. Your you-ness. Your Eunice. We, the audience and your stage partners, celebrate your you-ness. We relate to it. We’re inspired by it. And, very often, your Eunice makes us erupt in the heartiest, most multi-dimensional possible laughter. The kind that says, “Yes. Yes! I hear you. Thank you for reflecting a piece of me back with laughter and making me feel less alone in the world.”
In our book, Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book, TJ Jagodowski writes in his conclusion:
“That’s one of my favorite things about improvisation: All it wants it you. It says you’ve done all the homework needed to be good at it. You stayed alive ‘til now. And along the way, you’ve felt and learned. You’ve talked to people. You’ve thought the most lovely and atrocious stuff imaginable. And improvisation gives you a place for it all. Brings you to it. Those oddities and eccentricities. Your most sensitive self. Your highest aspiration and basest impulse have their arena. Improvisation wants all of you. Every angelic height and dusty corner. It says you don’t have to hide any part of you anymore.
It wants your whole soul. But that’s all. It only wants everything.”
(I know, right? Loving sigh. TJ knows his way around a word, doesn’t
Speaking of Mr. Jagodowski, he’s the one who first taught me an exercise that brings out the power and beauty of Eunice in improvisation. I later saw him teach it in a workshop with Mr. Pasquesi. Their exercise inspired me to adapt it for the Zen of Improv. I’ll explain how I personally do it here, but please know that the true value of the original exercise is the side-coaching by TJ and Dave. Which I’m deeply sorry that I can neither teach to my students nor replicate virtually with you. So we’ll make do with what we have in the here and now …
My version is called The Conversation, and it’s as simple as just that: Two people have a conversation onstage. The players are given a scenario in which two people might find themselves chatting, and they’re instructed to have a conversation in their true voices - their real selves - with the only goal to respond naturally and honestly. It’s helpful to begin with a topic of authentic interest to at least one actor, so I sometimes ask, “What are you into right now? Is there a TV show/ book/article/experience/topic you’re enjoying talking about? What gets your heart pumping and fires up your mind these days?” The response could be profound or mundane – both are equally wonderful – the key is that it contains that spark of authenticity. And usually as someone is answering my question, their eyes start to gleam, they lean forward a bit, maybe start moving their arms around more, and that’s how I know the scene has begun. So I slowly back off the stage, allowing them to continue.
The most important part of the exercise – and if you're an experienced improviser, it might be the most challenging part – is to speak in your true voice. Not your actor voice. Not a staged conversation. No heightening or playing patterns or jokes. In The Conversation, your you-ness is turned on and the actor is turned off. (I suspect TJ and Dave would hope the actor stays turned off for eternity and then some.) When I got up to perform this exercise in TJ’s workshop, he told my stage partner and me that we were two guests grabbing a drink at the bar at a wedding. I can’t remember exactly what my first line was – probably something insipid and contrived like “Weddings are a farce” - but TJ stopped me before the last word left my mouth. It wasn’t only what I said, but probably more how I said it. Rather, in whose voice I said it. It wasn’t Regular Pam; it was Improviser Pam. The stupid and embarrassing thing is, I knew what he was looking for. This workshop was in the middle of our book-writing years, and at that time I was living and breathing TJ and Dave’s philosophies. And yet … and yet, the improv habit was (okay, I’ll admit, probably still is) so fully ingrained in my self that it took over as soon as we began the exercise. Feeling like a total asshole on that evening in the workshop with TJ, I quieted my internal judgmental voice who was busy expounding on my suckitude ("Shut up, Calvin,") then I mentally hit re-set and tried once again to have a natural, honest conversation onstage. The scene that resulted was fun and “ease-ful,” and the people watching didn’t throw tomatoes. I walked offstage feeling like less of an asshole, and, more significantly, having learned a cornerstone lesson in improvisation.
If you’re an experienced improviser at a rehearsal and you want to get real fancy, you can use three of these conversations as the first beat of a set. Then bring back those characters in the second beat. (Yes, after the first beat, they become characters who have had those experiences talked about in the initial conversations.) In pairs again, we allow them to interact in any time or space they’re inspired to do so. Maybe it's five minutes after the first conversation or maybe it's five years later or maybe it's ten years before. Who knows? We won't know until they take the stage and discover it. When I do it in class, I get all six players up on stage for the third beat, and instruct them to do scenes with whichever characters they think their character would most enjoy playing with. Et voilà, a pretty, little Harold-esque set with honest moments and authenticity has been performed before we know it.
The reason I love The Conversation is that it shines the spotlight on Eunice. And hopefully everyone’s you-ness continues to shine every time they take the stage forevermore. "What?" you might be thinking. "Am I supposed to play myself in every scene?" No, that's not what I'm saying, and I'll thank you for not putting any more words in my mouth. But I am suggesting that you can start there, with your you-ness, until you discover more about your character; and, even then, your character can share your life experiences and emotional reactions, if it seems true to the moment. Even though you might be bored by your you-ness, I can assure you that we are not. The audience and your stage partners are delighted by something – anything! – that you authentically care about. I’ve been wildly entertained by scenes about computer programming manuals, disdain for hippies, and personal space issues. When done authentically and honestly, any interaction onstage is compelling. As long as you let Eunice shine.
“To be beautiful means to be yourself.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh
Eunice, I believe, is who Del Close was talking about when he instructed his students to go out and live life fully, and then bring it back to the stage. I have observed that the more life we have lived before we take the stage, the more you-ness goodness we have to share. Which is why I’m flummoxed that older improvisers are not the most revered and sought after teammates in the global improv world. Just by sheer man-hours put in, older improvisers have more developed and varied Eunices. And the older people who are attracted to improv tend to have some of the most astounding Eunices around. I’m not sure why. Maybe all the boring older people stay home?
In any case, all of us can bring more Eunice to the stage. I wonder what it would be like if we only brought Eunice to the stage? What would those scenes be like? Beautiful and heartful and fully entertaining, I suspect. Because you are enough. You are enough. You are enough. Your you-ness is all you need. Your you-ness is all we need. Because we love your weirdness, your true-ness, your ugly-ness, your heart-ness. We love your you-ness. Let your Eunice shine!
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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.
Unless you're a meanie, Pam would probably like you.