I’ve just finished up a week of improv classes in Chicago. I attended one of Second City’s immersions, then tacked on a two-day workshop called The Art of Slow Comedy. I learned a lot in both venues, which I’m eager to share with my readers and the groups I speak to. (By the way, have you registered for my fall workshop yet? Yes, And: Improvisational Leadership in Times of Dizzying Change is in October at Columbia Seminary, co-led with Marthame Sanders, whose aijcast podcast is well worth a listen.) Last week at Second City we did an exercise called improvising within a premise. I was in a group of three—two men and me. We had two minutes to come up with the basics of a scene: who, what, and where. Then we would get on stage and bring that scene to life. We were told not to pre-plan dialogue or other details of the scene.
Our group kept our premise fairly simple: a mother was taking her child to the doctor, but the doctor ignored the kid and persisted in hitting on the mother.
One of the underlying rules of improv is to “follow the fun,” and as we waited for our turn, I realized two things simultaneously: a) Because I was the only woman in the group, it was clear they assumed I would be the mother. b) I did NOT want to be the mother.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played this kind of scene, and it can be fun. That day, though, I was not feeling it. And I was pretty glum about the scene as a result.
Until I remembered the beauty of improv: There’s nothing that says I have to be the mother.
Improv is powered by imagination! And people play a different gender all the time. All I had to do was go out there and make it clear that I was someone else. So I did. When it was our turn, I plopped down on a chair and said, “Mommy, I can’t bend my knees and I really hope the doctor can fix it.” And BOOM, just like that I was the child.
Honestly, I remember very little about the scene (and besides, explaining an improv scene is never as funny as seeing it live). But it really doesn’t matter. For me, the victory was tuning in to myself enough to know that I needed to change something, and taking steps to change it. And sure enough, my scene partners said, “Yeah, we thought you were going to be the mother.” And I got to look at them, smile cryptically, and say, “Why would you assume that?” Powered by imagination.
I’ve always loved the so-called serenity prayer:
Our group had agreed on the premise; that’s not something I could change. But the assumption that I would play a particular part, that I would conform to expectations, was something I could change. I love improv because it helps me practice courage to change what I can, when the stakes are low, so that maybe I can do it more easily when the stakes are higher.
The world is way more complicated than an improv class. And we can’t always follow the fun—sometimes life is simply a slog. But how often do I accept a premise that is foisted upon me, rather than pushing back? How often do I assume a role I really don’t have to play?
I don’t want to do that anymore.
Peace, Joy, and Yes, MaryAnn
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