A Box of Dirt for Your Car
Improv and some Type of creative process
I loaded my problems, stress, and insecurities into an old beat up red hatchback and pushed it off a cliff so I could proceed. I didn’t assess the damage, I just pushed it off so easily while I stood on the blue elementary school carpet in a circle full of strangers I would later affix my body next to in order to form a collage. Some say improv is a cheap form of therapy, and I wouldn’t protest if it actually was cheap*. Others assume it’s akin to comedy lessons, and as an unfunny person I laugh in their face. We slowly disassembled, one by one, in reverse from the point of origin and looked at those who, without any question, helped make the collage that was no longer there. A whole greater than the sum of its parts; improv is hilarious.
I didn’t sign up for improv again for the sake of bazaar activities, it’s learning to be present and allowing myself to create with fewer blocks of self-deprecation and anxiety I needed help with, and these activities were low-stakes exposure therapy. My dedicated improv time once a week after work (for 7 weeks) was something I looked forward to, like a walk outside after staring too long at something or reading a book after clicking too many things—both periods in which you realize you’re no longer using your brain but just going through the motions, only heightened with a looming tightness created by fear.
There’s a distinguishingly twisted release though that happens when a teacher repeatedly states their expectations for success are at zero—you begin to test that number to see if you can push zero into the negative for the next group to start with. The permission to be bad, as if it were a choice, is almost necessary to help succumb to the art of improv and the infamous yes, and…as we learn to take the shit we’re given and dish it back while we try to forget our age.
Each class had a goal that helped construct a larger picture, with a brief discussion about our observations behind each exercise and how such ridiculous activities could be helpful in various ways. I completed Level 2, which concentrated on developing scene work and building partner relationships since we were still improv babies: real people, invisible scenes, fuck. I tried to be as present as possible, but I was also taking mental notes while I changed age and quickly lived through death only to become a child again for the sake of tapping into different characters—which didn’t really work for me. I was able to put together a few things that did work or did resonate with me that I found applicable to a design process, or a creative process in general—not that those are the same thing.
With respect to the instructor and keeping the integrity of lesson plan in the room, I’ve changed the majority of the phrasings while omitting and expanding on others to reflect a summary of notable moments of my improv experience and how it may be applied to a general creative process.
Improv by Design
1. Pep Talk
Permission to act
Everyone stood side by side in a circle and one by one gave the person next to them a terrible gift while the receiver thanked them for the gift and pretended they loved it. The cycle continued, naming the first thing that came to mind without thinking about it ahead of time if you were actually trying.
A childish game yes, but that’s the whole point. Even something so simple can be challenging when you realize you’ve already pre-planned your next move so you can be right. My improv teacher’s zero level expectations and encouragement to not cheat by thinking of scenarios or responses ahead of time is helpful to think back on for these moments of desire and need so we can be in the moment and just move. Pre-planned scenarios come from logic and reason which easily can talk us out of creating something new, especially outside our norm, and into something safe if anything at all. I speak of this in terms of a creative, exploratory process, not in an idiotic cheetos sense, which is fucking dangerous, to say the least.
We can never predict how a scene or project may progress, or what the process would be like, but emotional blockers that come from some form of reason can get in the way of experimentation, process, and progress that allows us to respond, act, and release. My responses, along with everyone else’s, were idiotic but my shoulders were at ease and I knew it was helping.
2. Door 1 / 2 / 3
Sparking an idea
If you say the moon is a point of reference, I’ll tell you it reminds me of the soft rippling light on the crest of miniature waves in the ocean at night, a crumbling block of cheese shared amongst friends, or the pattern on a child’s pajamas—all of which I can grab and put in my pocket for reference that we’ll call scenarios for door 1, 2, and 3. Different from its point of origin.
Word association is a helpful way to quickly create something on the spot that can be stored and used for a later time, which our improv teacher referred to as our tool belt. The idea behind this is to think of something, could be a reference to an object, and think of 3 things associated with it. Once selected, those 3 things can be referred to in an upcoming scene if panic sets in and a response doesn’t come automatically. Three different directions to go into in response to another, which has shifted completely from its point of origin. In theory, for improv this is great, but this assumes one can remember to draw upon those reference points in a moment of panic on stage, which often wipes away those freshly created instances because, oh my god, people.
This basic word association technique didn’t quite work for me in the context of improv, but I found it applicable in more of an exploratory phase of an initial creative process where various options need to be created, but not instantaneously or in front of a crowd. Whether it’s listing 3 separate conceptual directions, 3 different storylines, or 3 separate color schemes, naming these points of reference is like a dancer focusing on a single point to complete a turn; a controlled loss of inhibitions with a clear focal point to build off of.
3. Establishing a Range
Zero to one
We stood in a quadrant made up of basic emotions written on paper, placed on the floor, and repeated the line provided to us by our instructor to our partner so we could learn scale and emotional range as we traversed the mini quadrantal landscape of emotion. We did this until we were told to stop so the next set of pairs thrown into the gauntlet could repeat a new set of lines until they moved past the initial inflictions that were obvious to them, breaking apart syllables to create a different rhythm in the process. (Ex: Person 1: “You stole my shoe!” Person 2: “I stole your shoe!”)
This emotional quadrant exercise helped display how emotion can be expanded on within a scene to propel the structure or narrative in a minimal rather than resorting to extreme ends of a spectrum. This can start to be achieved by tapping into various stress levels and enunciations to reflect an emotion explored through repetition. These varying stress levels on different syllables result in unexpected tones and meanings from a basic idea or phrase, like the way a word changes shape and loses its original form and meaning when repeated quickly, none of which is really instinctually obvious. The more constraints you have the richer or more interesting you can get, meaning you really don’t need much to build from when we have the depth of a sliding scale of emotion to tap into as a foundation.
It’s easy to abandon or disregard an idea when it’s in the beginning stages when it’s basic elements are still forming. It could go in any direction but automatically be deemed not good enough, essentially moving onto something else with the hopes of finding something more substantial. This exercise is a helpful reminder to pause and dig deeper into something to allow a certain level of complexity to form over time. Zero to one rather than zero to 100. 100 being the obnoxious action movie, or, representing the extremes we default to on the opposite end of a spectrum we make caricatures of—the obvious.
4. Build and Balance
Two people at a time sat in front of the class and began to converse about the vacation they pretended to recently go on together, building a story off of each other’s responses. We went to a theme park and rode the roller coasters in the kids’ section even though they made my older brother sick. There were other things, all quite dull, but we established a place, a reason, our relationship, and social status throughout our fake conversation. We built it together, each adding one definite truth after the other.
Utilizing the emotional range in the previous exercise, which can be displayed as a vertical axis, we can envision a story on an expanded horizontal axis intersecting it. Two meaningless lines previously repeated incessantly can be expanded into another balanced scene with a conversation that transfers from one side to the next, building off the question: if that’s true then what else is true? If x true then y is true—a series of statements to make a function, or scene, work and progress to make each other look amazing.
Our improv teacher spoke of balanced collaboration—not being a firehose of information without leaving room for the other person to talk, while also not rejecting what has been given in a scene and shutting down. This collaborative balance is essential to improv of course, but also to any creative process when working with a team or other individuals. Nothing really goes well when people automatically reject ideas without hearing each others perspective, or when one person is running the entire show themselves to satisfy their own ego. And for the love of god, you cannot run a country like that either.
There were many things left out of this, along with other impactful benefits that were carried on from Level 1, but I didn’t want to restate everything verbatim or be obnoxiously enthusiastic about it. Synthesizing the exercises I found most relevant into this idea of some sort of creative process with these quick abstract illustrations to help illustrate the ideas made the most sense to refer back to when I needed it, rather than just trying to remember a jumbled mix of things distorted over time. If you’ve stumbled across this, I hope you’ve found it helpful too with whatever thing you’ve been timid to start, even though it’s still an ongoing battle.
Though I’m quite terrible at it and not passionate about the art of improv itself, it has helped me in the day to day in many ways that I think made a lasting impact on me—I can go through the day more freely rather than freeze and discredit myself for the most part, which is huge. And though I was able to finish Level 2 this time around, I think I succeeded in lowering my teacher’s expectations as I ditched the final class—an actual performance. Sometimes LA calls.
* I used Compass tuition reimbursement on this class, which made it free for me this time, but it’s a lot to throw down even though it’s worth it.