Life Lessons from Improv
What improvisational theater can teach us about life & creativity
Growing up in the 90’s, the one show on cable TV that I really used to look forward to was Whose Line is it Anyway? (WLIIA), the live-skit show where ‘everything was made up and the points didn’t matter’! It had all the elements of a great show — brilliant performers, a great host and an enthusiastic audience. At a time when live comedy only meant mimicry for us Indian audiences, the show was nothing short of a revelation.
While the show had laughs aplenty, one thing that always astonished me was the level of improvisation on display. Apparently, the show was a hundred percent unscripted and performed in front of an actual live audience. I always wondered how the cast were able to think so fast on their feet, no matter what situation they were given to enact. Why did their responses not seem random even though they were being made up on the spot? Was it a special genius that these performers were endowed with?
Some of these questions were answered recently when I read a classic book on improvisation called Impro, written by British playwright Keith Johnstone. The book was intended as a manual for stage actors and is filled with very specific acting advice, but littered throughout its pages are some of the most profound insights on creativity, the human psyche and nature of interpersonal relationships. As it turns out, the process used by the best improvisers is not rooted in some special talent; rather, it’s all about letting the subconscious take the reins on stage. A similar transformation, the author argues, can help us be more creative and have more fulfilling lives.
Here, then, are four lessons from the world of improvisational theater.
Creativity is about managing your fear, not how talented you are
‘I began to think of children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children.’
It is safe to say that most adults do not think of themselves as creative and feel that creativity is best left to the artists. This belief usually stems from childhood experiences of facing discouraging assessments of our creative output. When we are children, our leaps of fantasy are a source of joy for adults and we are encouraged to indulge ourselves. However, a switch seems to go off around puberty when we become aware of the possibility of real criticism from our teachers and parents. The unconditional encouragement of early years gives way to analytical assessment, and as a result the prospect of displaying creativity becomes a source of anxiety for us. We respond either by smothering our spontaneity or by deciding we’re better off pursuing ends where the risk of failure is lower.
However, as Johnstone says in the book: ‘you are unimaginative only when you’re dead’. It’s a gross mistake to believe that art is there only in a chosen few because there is no such thing as ‘lack of talent’, only phobia. The fear is a mechanism to avoid the pain of failure and is perpetuated in childhood by the use of labels such as ‘untalented’. However, these labels say more about the adults who fail to help a child succeed than they do about the child himself. However, by acknowledging this fear, we can begin to see the various automatic responses we use to avoid failing — projecting ourselves as non-creative or excessively censoring our imaginations to produce only ‘correct’ or ‘acceptable’ answers. With this realization, it becomes possible to break free from the self-imposed restraints on our spontaneity and give fuller expression to the creativity inherent in all of us.
We are all playing status games with each other
‘Things said are not as important as the status played.’
The most eye-opening idea in Impro is about how we unknowingly play status games with each other. To understand this, think of the word status as a verb, i.e. something we do, rather than your position in a hierarchy. The assertion is that in every interaction a player occupies a niche, or status, relative to the other players and behaves in accordance with that chosen status. In simplistic terms: one party always dominates an interaction while the other gets dominated; again, the word ‘dominate’ here does not denote outright conflict, but a more subtle power dynamic. For instance, in a boss-employee relationship, it is almost always the boss who is high-status while the employee has no choice but to be low-status. The same employee however, might be high-status when interacting with a member of his or her domestic staff.
Everyone has a preferred status, which they can advertise directly through speech or indirectly through body language. An upright but relaxed posture, making eye contact and not shirking from standing close to others are all telltale signs of someone playing high status. On the other hand, if someone prefers a bent posture, not looking others in the eye and generally afraid to come too close, they are choosing a low status. Now this might surprise some, but some people do prefer to remain low-status because it keeps attention away from them. Such individuals can effectively use their low status to make others feel good about themselves and keep themselves from harm (e.g. the dwarves who were kept in kings’ courts for this very purpose).
How we react emotionally to a situation depends on how it affects our status. We feel good if our status is raised vis-à-vis others, but exactly the opposite when it’s lowered. Consider how you feel when you hear about a friend’s success: you might be genuinely happy but you also feel your status slowly sinking as your friend’s rises. Broadly speaking, we want others to be low-status compared to us, but not so low that we have to feel sympathy for them. A minor setback for an acquaintance might give us pleasure because we are automatically raised in comparison. However, when a serious tragedy befalls someone, we are forced to sympathize without any elevation in our own status. And that does not feel good at all.
So why does an understanding of status matter? In the context of improvisation, actors can become more spontaneous by recreating a status game on stage rather than focusing only on each other’s dialogue. By either slightly elevating or lowering their status compared to their acting partner, they are able to generate life-like scenarios which are always marked by status interactions. When it comes to real life, we can get better at reading social situations by understanding the subtle status interactions happening just beneath the surface. Even without a word being exchanged, we can sense how the power dynamic in a room is playing out, or who the most powerful person is. This knowledge can help us respond appropriately to a situation because we can strategically play low or high depending on whom we are interacting with.
Finally, we must realize that it’s not so much the status we choose to play as what the other person perceives we’re doing. Even the most innocent of intentions on your part can be misconstrued; for instance when you tell someone you’ve already read a book they are currently reading, they might feel you’re just trying to establish your intellectual superiority. Paying attention to such subtleties can pay rich dividends over the course of our lives.
Imagination can be effortless, if only we can stop getting in our own way
‘We suppress our spontaneous impulses, we censor our imaginations, we learn to present ourselves as ‘ordinary’, and we destroy our talent — then no one laughs at us.’
Imagination is literally hardwired into us — it has been proven that the brain does not perceive actual reality, rather it recreates it based on available stimuli. Yet, when asked to come up with an original idea we are hopelessly stuck. What’s going on? The reason we find imagination a chore is not because we don’t have any ideas, but because we are afraid of bringing our first ideas out in the open. Through a process of filtering our actual thoughts we aim to appear sane and remain within the confines of what is acceptable to our group. If under some circumstances, we do express our initial ideas, we run the risk of disturbing prevailing norms and projecting ourselves as unsafe, or worse, unpredictable.
The first step towards unlocking our imaginations is to accept that the person we see in the mirror is not the real us. It’s an image we have chosen to project to the world in order to fit in. When asked to come up with ideas, we manufacture ones that are consistent with this image. Our real self however, resides in the strange, obscene and (sometimes) insane thoughts that swim inside our heads. Refusing to acknowledge this reality can lead us to lose all essence of our own individuality and make us sound unoriginal and phony.
Secondly, we must realize that applying a filter of ‘usefulness’ too early and to every single idea is a surefire way to sabotage our creativity. We often obsess over individual ideas because we want them to be perfect and seek validation that they’ll succeed. By following this strategy, however, we miss the chance for real breakthroughs because a single idea is rarely powerful enough to change the status quo. It is in fact the linkages between ideas that drive creativity and innovation forward. Writer and podcaster James Altucher advises people to write down 10 ideas everyday because it is only when you have more than three hundred ideas every year that you will find one or two worth pursuing.
Another unnoticed consequence of trying to think of so-called good ideas is a distorted notion of what ‘original’ is. For most of us, being original means appearing clever and deliberately trying to be so. What we actually end up doing is creating true nonsense because we have systematically scrambled all spontaneous ideas that came to us. What we usually fail to see is that the most obvious thing is usually the most original. Why do you think we enjoy movies based on real-life more than those based on situations we can’t relate to? Similarly, why do the most successful business ideas elicit responses such as ‘Why didn’t I think of that?!’ Simply put, obvious means ‘accepting your first thoughts’. The goal should be to project your true self and originality will take care of itself.
The quality of your life is a function of things you say ‘yes’ to
“There are people who prefer to say ‘yes’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘no’. Those who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”
Our quality of life can be faithfully traced back to the choices we make. The circumstances we find ourselves in are a result of the things we say yes to. We can choose an option based on whether we can control the outcome or whether the given choice changes the status quo. Good improvisers always accept the offers made by their partners because their motive is to push the narrative along, to keep the action going. By accepting all offers and saying yes more often, actors electrify their scenes with constant action and possibility. The same principle applies to life as well — a comfortable, but dull, life exists because of the countless decisions that were taken with an eye to reducing uncertainty. A life of possibility and adventure, on the other hand, comes about when we are willing to embrace the unknown.