Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Back In It

Coney-Island Stillwell-Ave Subway Terminal
The Stillwell Ave. Subway Terminal, Coney Island

My Level 3 Improv class began this week.

I had some first-day-of-school jitters prior to class - the usual “I don’t wanna go, I don’t wanna go” feelings. But overall my nerves weren’t quite so jangly as they had been back when I was starting Level 2.

I think I have my returning classmates, in part, to thank for that. Knowing that there would be a half-dozen familiar faces in this level made it easier to show up and face the unknowns (some new people, a new teacher, and a brand new (to me) form: The Harold). Having those familiar faces in class helped me feel more like I belonged there, somehow. As though they could vouch for me – “Yep, she’s no interloper, she’s legit. We saw her finish Level 2; we've known her to be funny before.”

Class started with the requisite get-to-know-you introductions, followed by some warm-up games, and then it was time to dive into two-person scenes. Our teacher started making changes right away. Instead of having us stand in a line along the back of the stage (as we were accustomed), he broke up the back line and arranged us in rows along each side of the stage.

Standing along the back line, Teach explained, makes it harder to see the action playing out in front of you.  You're just staring at the back of your teammates' heads as they do their scene. The new formation was meant to encourage us to pay closer attention to what our teammates were doing, to be able to note their non-verbal cues, to really pay attention to the characters they were building and the stories they were telling in their scenes.

"I don't want you standing in the back, thinking about how your own scene just went, what you're going to do next, where you're going to take your character," Teach said. “Your scene isn’t yours. Your character isn’t even yours. They’re a part of the show as a whole. You’re responsible for maybe about an 1/8th of the show. It’s not about you – it’s about the combined group effort.”

And because one of the goals of The Harold format is to twist and join individual scenes into a unified whole, it's important to pay attention to all of the scenes, not just my own.  It's not about me - the individual improviser. It's about the team - the group mind, if you will.

I like this approach - this focus on the show as a whole rather than on my individual performance.  Obviously it relieves some of the pressure to show up and be a star.  Plus the notion that creating art is a shared responsibility, a team effort, is a nice idea to carry around in your pocket.

It reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk, when she spoke of the Greco-Roman understanding that the creative muse was something external & separate from the artist.  Your ability to create good art was thought to be a function of your connection to your muse and not some measure of your own intrinsic worth.  Art was a shared responsibility between the divine muse and the artist.

With Improv, I think it's a shared dance between you, your divine muse, and your teammates.  I love that I don't have to go it alone - I just have to show up ("Eighty-percent of success is just showing up," isn't it, Woody Allen?) and deliver my particular contribution to the whole.

And then - step to the side to pay attention to my teammates' stories, because in a scene or two I may be tapped to join in and contribute something to what they've started to build.  And in turn, I'll pull them into my story and we'll share, grow, expand it together.  And hopefully - if we're listening and present to the promptings of our muses - all of our stories will intersect, run together, and start to make sense.

In Improv, as in life, it goes better when you don't go it alone.

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