Improv Wisdom

“Don’t prepare. Just show up.”

Seems to defy not just conventional wisdom but common sense as well. I’ve recently been all about the need for “deep practice” and rehearsal. But hear this out. This is different. What if you let go of your scripts, your automatic responses to typical situations, your inclination to live in your head most of the time?

Consider those icebreaker activities where everyone in a circle is asked a question like, “What’s your favorite book?” The point is to have everyone get to know each other a little better. But what really happens is that most people in the circle spend their time preparing their response in their mind and not actually listening to the responses of others.

What if you truly spent that time, instead, trying to understand the responses of the others and gave absolutely zero thought to what you will say when it’s your turn? Would you really draw a complete blank when your name is called or offer something embarrassingly inelegant? Trust that your amazing brain would be able to shift gears from listening mode and summon an intelligible, maybe even intelligent response on the spot. In fact, a spontaneous, improvised response without any forethought might be more authentic and original and more interesting than what you would have rehearsed.

Now, imagine a job interview or a date or a conversation with a friend or family member. Instead of using the time when others are speaking to prepare and rehearse for when you get a turn to speak, simply “show up” and listen and try your best to understand, and then have confidence that you’ll do just fine when it’s your turn to speak.

Just showing up, just being present and focused on the moment at hand, is not easy. Those cool cats on that improv TV show are quite brilliant in their zaniness. But their brilliance is hard won through years of experience, through countless moments of stretching their capacity to create on the spot. They have prepared to be unprepared.

The best jazz musicians and teachers and public speakers are ones who have prepared so thoroughly that they can create something new in the moment as they respond to the audience in front of them. Their preparation has earned them the right and the ability to “wing it” and improvise and create something beautiful.

There’s a terrific little book, Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson, that explores this topic. Madson, an improv teacher, challenges readers to live a more unscripted life and applies lessons from improvisational theater to everyday situations we all face.

We all need to practice being unpracticed. Prepare for spontaneity and improvisation. We will look silly at times and occasionally say and do things that are far from excellent. But we will be more real. We will be more interesting and find others more interesting as well. And we will laugh more.

Improv Wisdom

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