Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Zen of Improv: For the Eager Beavers (More About the Journey)

by Pam Victor

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

Recently in my "Improv for Scaredy Cats workshop for absolute beginners, pre-beginners, and the improv curious," I had a brand spankin' freshly-hatched new improv student say, "But in the book, TJ and Dave said..."

"Fuck TJ and Dave" was my salty response. (And I mean that lovingly and respectfully.) And then I thought, "Ah, we've got an Eager Beaver here." (I mean that lovingly and respectfully too.)

I can easily identify an Eager Beaver because I was one, so I can recognize the tells. It’s a gleam in the Eager Beaver's eye that betrays their enthusiastic impatience when they walk in the door. It’s a Cookie Monster-like chant of “Me need more improv!” which is only audible to the thoroughly addicted. It’s a sigh of frustration and the wrinkled brow while walking back to the chairs after a scene in an early class. We dedicated Eager Beavers thump our tails impatiently to beat a quicker path to the Best Improv Show Ever. And as my teachers may recall all too well, I'm one of the most egregious Eager Beavers at the dam. We Eager Beavers are a pain in the ass. We’re so eager to lickety-split “get better at improv,
" we might forget to notice that the real gift of this improv journey is that it can’t be rushed. 

To my dear fellow Eager Beavers, I'm sorry to say “becoming a better improviser” is not something that we can think or study or read our way to. I’ve had students who’ve come into their first class having read books and watched shows and done some really mind-expanding thinking on the topic. And no matter how much preparation they've done, these Eager Beaver students still start at Day One, just like the kid off the street who signed up for class on a whim "because Wayne Brady is funny." No matter how much thinking and reading and discussing they’ve had before that first (or 100th) day of class, the Eager Beavers still need/get to learn all the many permutations of agreement and fighting/following their fear, and how to make each other look good, and how to redefine failure, and what a perceived shitty scene feels like (and then what two or three or a hundred shitty scenes feel like,) and how to get back out there, jump again into the unknown, and catch each other and all that other delicious, juicy stuff. On our feet. Over and over and over again. 

If there are short cuts in improvisation, I sure as shit don't know about them. And even if I did have the magical, CandyLand map with the Rainbow Trail short cut, I'm not sure I would tell you because I wouldn't want to deprive you of one single, solitary second along your journey.

The lessons of improvisation are meant to be discovered over time, with lots of trial and lots of error, in order for them to properly seep into our bones. Improv is a journey - yes, one that can take decades and decades until the end of our lives. (And, if there is a heaven, certainly there too.) That's the beauty of it and the reason why so many of us do it as voraciously as ever, even when we're ten, twenty, thirty years in. There are no short cuts. What a curse! What a blessing! 

We can't think or talk our way any more quickly along the journey of improvisation. (Believe me, I've tried. And then I inflict those efforts on blog readers.) Though you might be feeling grumbly about that news, the bright side is, that if we could get all our questions answered by thinking and talking and writing, we’d be tempted to stop asking, investigating, thinking, geeking out. Then we’d lose touch with our beginner’s mind that spurs that all-important Cookie Monster energy to learn more, more, more about improvisation. The "Me want more improv!" mindset is a fleeting gift. Hold onto it! 

"No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path." 
- Buddha

If anyone tells you there is one easy, quick-and-dirty answer to improvisation's big questions, they're selling you snake oil. Pay for that shit at your own risk. Yes, a teacher will answer your question, but keep in mind that a teacher can only give you one possible answer for that particular moment in time given the teacher’s and your current state of evolution. But then the moment is gone, and the answer loses focus and needs to be asked all over again. We learn, we grow, and we learn more and outgrow the old answers…until, strangely, we learn and grow so much that we come back to asking the same questions we had from the start.

I can hear you thinking, "Fuck you, Pam. I want answers to my questions! I want to get better!"

Of course you do. So do I. Also, fuck you too. (And I mean that lovingly and respectfully.) I know all too well the soul-pummeling feeling of walking back to the green room after a shit-show. I know what it feels like to slink away as soon as possible after a hard class muttering, "Never again. Fuck this shit. I'm going to spend evenings in a less painful way, like maybe poking myself in the eye with a hot fork." Who wouldn't want to speed through the painful portions of the fucking journey? Believe me, I would love to be the teacher who could sprinkle fairy dust on you and say the magic words that would turn you into the world's best improviser. (Well, to be honest, I would save the best dust for myself and my teammates ... Yeah, I know. I'm a total dick.) But here's the hard, cold truth: We're all on the same journey with no achievable end, bitches. 

Given that, I wonder what it would be like to enjoy the journey more? What would it feel like to be grateful for those gut-punching moments that teach us so much? What would it be like to resist the whirlpool of self-judgment and self-flagellation after a hard scene in class? How could we get back on the joyride when improv is kicking our ass?

One way might be to stop thinking so damn much. Dave Pasquesi often advises that if thinking is part of the problem, more thinking is not going to be part of the solution. So what to do instead? As always, one answer is to pay attention. Listen with your ears, your eyes, your heart, your gut, your intuition. Notice what makes you laugh, what brings you joy and what makes you want to be part of the scene. What feels ease-ful? What feels fun? Then do that instead of thinking.

This improv thing is a long-ass journey, my friends. And by "long-ass," I mean "infinite." Even if we've never had the good fortune of working together, I will put good money on this bet: I'd bet that you are in the perfect place along the way in your improv journey - exactly where you need to be. You are where you are. You can't rush it. So you can either hate the journey or love the journey. 

If I could sprinkle fairy dust and say magic words, I would wish for us all to choose love.

* * *

If you are interested in exploring some 
more Zen of Improv pieces
you might enjoy reading about this topic 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.

Pam is very proud that she wrote an entire essay about beavers without even a soupçon of a vag joke.

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