Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Zen of Improv: The Journey

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

Am I the only one who wanted to walk on stage on Day One of improv school and blow the fucking lid off the scenes? I remember wanting to be GOOD right away. And the weird thing about improv is that we get to taste the GOOD almost immediately in little fleeting licks of laughter and ease, which mistakenly leads us to believe that greatness can be born in a flash if we could only get that just-right lick. We think that maybe we’re just one scene away from being the best fucking improviser on the planet, and with just a couple more classes, we can be all, “Suck it, TJ and Dave! Eat my dust, Improvised Shakespeare!” as we ride off into the improv legend horizon. But then a couple months later, when we’re not performing in a 8pm Saturday night show and haven’t been cast on a house team and don’t have Matt Besser on speed-dial, we start to get frustrated with ourselves, with our stage partners, with our teachers, and with improvisation. 

The cool/fucked up thing is that now that I have the perspective of a teacher, I can see what an unhelpful path this erroneous thinking takes us on. I see students who want to "be good" right away, and their current status as learners only frustrates them. This frustration leads to fear-based moves onstage and also sucks joy out of the practice. None of these things gets them back on the happy improv train when they got that first GOOD lick that hooked them into improv in the first place. The coolest/most fucked up thing is that their current status as learners is one of the biggest blessings in the improv journey, but they're in such a hurry to get past it that they miss out the joy.
A gift from my daughter
and a reminder from my angels

My message today is this: We are on a journey. And we are exactly where we need to be on the journey, as much as it sucks to hear that. The secret is to find joy in being where we are at this moment, while at the same time keeping our eye on the prize of where we want to be. This secret, this intention, is no small task. Personally, I know it will take me a lifetime of practice. But perhaps I can meet it with curiosity: What would it be like to be perfectly content with where I am right now on the journey?

Our improv journey involves ups, downs – not to mention those dreaded plateaus - none of which can or should be avoided. The ups fuel us through the downs. The downs lead to profound learning, which ultimately fuel the ups. And the plateaus are part of the journey too, which also make us better players as they compel us to take more risks and get out of our comfort zone and generally shake things up. I know there is a desire to speed the journey along in order to get to whatever end goal we've set. But I am sad (and happy!) to say, I'm not sure that's possible to do. If we’re doing our jobs as evolving improvisers, we are taking classes and workshops and seeing shows. We are getting up on stage and leaping into the unknown; we’re landing on downy, groupmind softness and we’re crashing into nasty road pizza on the ground. We are doing the work. We are on the journey. 

The trick is to take more pleasure in the place we’re in right now. In retrospect, I really wish I had when I was a beginner. And this moment is a good reminder for me to get more fully on the joyride with the challenges I face right now in my own improv life. Not to mention my real life.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”- Lao Tzu

We are on a journey. There are no short cuts because there is no end of this journey. Like life, improvisation is a lifelong practice. In the beginning, we feel impatient to be “farther along” in the journey, to know more, to be “better,” to feel more secure. But the longer we improvise, the more we know the less we know. 

TJ Jagodowski , iO Theater (2012)
[Photo credit: Pam Victor]
“There is so much I don’t know. Of all the things in the world I should have learned, I probably know the most about improvisation and I know almost nothing.”
-TJ Jagodowski, Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book

I mean – look, you guys – that’s TJ speaking there. In my opinion, he’s one of the best improvisers on the planet. That chap is one of the smartest, most talented people I know; he’s has studied with Del Close, Mick Napier, Noah Gregoropoulos, and our other most excellent teachers; he’s performed on Second City Mainstage and is a rockstar at Annoyance and iO Theater; he’s devoted his life to improvisation and he lives seeped in it; he’s been getting up onstage in Chicago with some of the world’s top improvisers most nights of the week over the past twenty years or so … and he still feels like he knows almost nothing.

It’s all part of the journey. Every move is part of the journey. Just like when we play the word association game Clover, there are no bad moves because every single, damn word gets us closer to coming back to the original word again. What if it’s the same in our improv journey? What if in order to get to the “good,” we have to go through the “bad"? (So much so that there is no good and bad.) What if, in order to go closer towards our goal, we have to go far away from it? (So much so that there is no closer and no farther away.)

What if it’s the same in our life journey as it is in our improv journey as it is in Clover? Every moment takes to one step closer to where we need to be, which is right there in the moment.

That’s so fucking OBNOXIOUS, isn’t it? I want to bitchslap that idea so hard, you guys. But, I’ll ask again because I need to hear it again, What would it be like to be perfectly content with where I am right now on the journey?

Finally, I'll leave you with this mantra, which I adopted in my struggle with this journey idea: “This is the pathway to joy. This is the pathway of joy.” The moments that feel like my life has devolved into a steaming shitshow? This is the pathway to joy. This is the pathway of joy. As much as I’d like to kick into overdrive to get past those blerg-ful moments along my pathway to joy, I can’t. There are no shortcuts along the pathway to joy, I guess. Because it’s all the pathway of joy.

Isn’t that fucking craptastic, you guys?

John Windmueller’s Improv Lifecycle

Washington DC improviser John Windmueller posted this terrific overview of the typical improviser's practical journey, which he was kind enough to allow me to share with you. (Thanks, John!) He includes this caveat and acknowledgment: “This is just an in general thing, and individual mileage can totally vary. Props to Jill Bernard, who first got me thinking about this years ago when she noted the two year know-it-all phase folks sometimes go through.”

Level 1 Class: Improv Baby Shit yourself/your scenes, but don't really even realize or fully understand or judge it, so laugh, laugh, laugh and enjoy the joy.

Levels 2-3 Classes: Improv Toddler Can do more, but that's sort of a mixed blessing. Runs into walls and falls. Is aware that it has run into walls and fallen, and older siblings don't do that. Still joyful, but some frustrated aspirational goals as well.

Levels 4-5 classes thru 1.5 years out: Improv Tween  Oh the awkward improv tween years. So earnest. So self aware and critical of themselves. Cue the piece by Ira Glass about taste and the curse of developing judgment long before reps gives them ability:

1.5-3 years: Improv Teenager I FUCKING KNOW EVERYTHING AND YOU'RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME. So much attitude, and maybe it's best they don't realize how not-yet-actually-good they are at improv, because at least there's confidence.

3-6 years: Improv Twenties Figuring it out. Making the transition into adulthood/solid improv, with growth coming in lurches forward, occasional falls backward, and long slogs through what they worry is stagnation (but isn't.)

7-10 years: Improv Thirties / Adult improviser Not everything is figured out, but if they've made it this far into adulthood, they've probably generally got the core stuff figured out. They've reached the point of being legitimately good, and they've also reached the point of being less obsessed with "good."

10-20 years: Improv Midlife  Sometimes midlife means starting to fall into stagnant comfortable ruts. Sometimes it means a wrenching but ultimately awesome midlife crisis -- sure there's good improv, but what is MY good improv?

20+ years: Improv Elder Years Sometimes it's crotchety improv senility and just repeating echos of what once worked and was fresh, but now they're sort of repeating shorthand simplifications--getting smaller instead of expanding. Or, and god bless them, there's the wise and mischievous improv elderly. They have a twinkle in their eyes and do the smallest things with such grand and wonderful result. And the really wise ones might even revert to their Improv Baby years, doing such crazy and wild things, and with that sometimes shitting themselves/shows, but they smile so wide when they do, laughing and finding joy in the full experience of life/improv.

* * *

A teeny tiny, one-minute webseries that 
tries to answer the questions of life 
according to the tenets of improvisation.
In this episode, we explore the non-question, 
"Life sucks and then you die."

If you are interested in exploring some 
more Zen of Improv pieces
you might enjoy reading about that Clover exercise in

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


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.

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