I just returned from a week of improv class at Second City, made possible by a pastoral study grant from the Louisville Institute. It was an immensely helpful experience for my upcoming book, Improvising with God, but more than that, it was life-shaping. I should have expected that--after all, improv for me is about more than creating a scene on stage; it's about living creatively and faithfully when life doesn't go according to plan. Still, I returned home with a sudden sense that I'll look back on this week as a profound turning point on many levels.
On the plane ride home, I read the book The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, a recommendation from some fellow grantees of the Louisville Institute. Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, the authors, aren't writing about improv, except that they are. It's an excellent book, and I'm not sure the Reston Regional Library will be getting it back...
The Zanders talk a lot in their book about mistakes. We are conditioned to avoid mistakes, but they are the beating heart of improv, especially in the beginning. Messing up means you're trying and striving beyond your ability. Unbound by your own sense of convention and safety, you risk screwing up, and in those screwups you learn what works well in a scene and what doesn't. (And as we discovered in class, mistakes can be delightful to watch onstage, provided you don't cringe and apologize and bathe yourself in shame. Own it and love yourself for taking a chance, and the audience will love it too.)
Here's a section of the Zanders' book I found astounding and poignant in terms of how we understand mistakes. Benjamin Zander is a conductor and draws from that background throughout the book:
The level of playing of the average orchestral player is much higher than it used to be in Mahler's day. So when Mahler wrote difficult passages for particular instruments... he was almost certainly conveying, musically, the sense of vulnerability and risk he saw as an integral part of life... We will not convey the sense of the music if we are in perfect technical control.
...Stravinsky, a composer whom we tend to think of as rather objective and "cool," once turned down a bassoon player because he was too good to render the perilous opening to The Rite of Spring. This heart-stopping moment, conveying the first crack in the cold grip of the Russian winter, can only be truly represented if the player has to strain every fiber of his technical resources to accomplish it. A bassoon player for whom it was easy would miss the expressive point.
...This attitude is difficult to maintain in our competitive culture where so much attention is given to mistakes and criticism that the voice of the soul is literally interrupted. The risk the music invites us to take becomes a joyous adventure only when we stretch beyond our known capacities, while gladly affirming that we may fail. And if we make a mistakes, we can mentally raise our arms and say,'How fascinating!' and reroute our attention to the higher purpose at hand.
When is the last time you stretched beyond your known capacities? I'd love to hear about it--or if it's been a while, what's getting in your way?
As for me, I'm taking a workshop this weekend on musical improv, in which we'll learn how to improvise scenes through music. It will be three hours of exhilarating failure and I can't wait.
Peace, joy and Yes, MaryAnn
P.S. The photos are from the Second City Training Center, which features inspirational quotes throughout the building, as well as photos of Second City alumni, like Stephen Colbert, one of my heroes.
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