“Improvisation is instant gratification. And that’s scary. Most of us would rather suffer in the known than experience pleasure in the unknown. Instant gratification? Nah… There must be a catch…” ~ Imprology

Of all the weird and wonderful things I have ever tried, immersed myself in or thrown myself at, the one that has remained a constant is improvisation. Improvisation – the beautiful and dangerous art of stepping out on to a stage without a script and making things up on the spot.


I have been improvising on stage and participating in and running improv workshops for nearly 10 years.  I’ve played alongside seasoned performers and beginners and people who simply want to improve their listening and communication skills, their confidence and their creativity, who want to be more playful and adaptive and resilient and all of the other things that improv skills can help with.

For me, improvisation goes beyond the stage or the studio – it is a life philosophy.

I am an improviser. And you are an improviser too.

If you doubt that you are an improviser, consider this. However carefully you may plan your life, set goals, make lists – doesn’t something always come along to disrupt your carefully laid plans? And when that happens, what do you do? You can either change course, adapt to the new circumstances and move forward; or you can stick rigidly to the original script you created for yourself, bury your head in the sand and deny that anything has changed, despite all evidence to the contrary.

But we were none of us born with a script; we are all, each and every one of us, making it up as we go along.

So we are all improvisers – but some of us are better at it than others. The good news is improvisation is a skill that can be learned and like most skills, it gets easier with practice.

When I began learning to love without fear, and guiding others on their own journeys, I started to make links with my improvisation practice and to see how I could draw on the principles I had learned in the studios and witnessed and practised on stage with my fellow improvisers to improve my relationships with others, to release myself from the desire to possess and control – and increase my capacity for loving abundantly and unconditionally.

So, here are three basic improv philosophies that, when applied to our intimate relationships, have the capacity to transform the way we live and love.

Give up control and let go of the outcome

An improv colleague once remarked ‘An orgy is far more difficult to organise than a wank – that’s why there are so many stand-up comedians in the world’.

If you’re a stand-up comedian, to a certain extent you have a semblance of control over what happens while you are up there on stage. You write and perform the material and, audience heckles aside, you needn’t deviate from the script too much. What’s in your head is more or less what gets expressed on stage.

But in improvisation, you are sharing the spotlight with at least one, two, maybe three or more people at any one time, and, as in life, there is no script. And the more people are involved in the scene, the more willing you have to be able to let go of your own internal ‘script’ and respond to what is happening in the moment, rather than what you think is happening, or what you would prefer to happen. Improv teaches us to be adaptive and responsive and flexible.  And I’ve always found you can tell a lot about a stand-up by the way he or she responds to heckles.

But there are a lot of people out there conducting their relationships as though they were neophyte stand-up comedians – sticking rigidly to their script about how relationships ‘work’ and in the process, allowing themselves to be controlled by their expectations, fantasies and fears. The more you try to control, the more you end up being controlled, and before you know it, the whole thing is unravelling and you’re being booed off the stage. Let go of the outcome and enjoy the process.

It’s all about you – and it’s not all about you

Once you learn that you have no control over what other people do, you very quickly learn that you have to take responsibility for yourself and your behaviour. So while it’s important to remain open and flexible, you have to commit to action in the here and now, and stand by those actions. A key improv principle is ‘Look after yourself first!’It reminds us that, while we can’t control how someone else might respond, we do have control over our own behavioural responses, and in the service of the ‘thing’ we are creating, whether that’s an improvised play or an intimate relationship, we owe it to ourselves and each other to commit 100%. If everyone involved is able to look after themselves, we have so much more capacity to commit without resorting to self-protective behaviours or needing to have our egos stroked, or relying on others to make us look or feel good, or to complete our ‘story’. In other words, you have to be selfish in order to be selfless. In improv, there is no room for the ego. There’s no place for it in a loving relationship either.

There’s no such thing as the F-word

By which I mean, failure. There is something very liberating about being given – and giving yourself – permission to fail, and fail spectacularly and happily. Once you start to improvise, you start to change your mindset about what constitutes ‘failure’ and start to see cock-ups as learning opportunities – or even happy accidents.

There’s a very good reason why improvisation is associated with comedy – there is a delicious delight in watching someone take a risk, fall flat on their backside, and get up and try again. Improvisation increases our adaptive capacity and teaches us not to take ourselves too seriously.

We learn to look beyond the normal and the ordinary, to handle the unexpected, and to make sense of the downright bizarre. We learn to trust in ourselves and our fellow players and the ‘thing’ we are creating together, to forgive ourselves and each other – and to move on.

So these basic principles provide a firm foundation for good improvisation to happen, with all players working together at the height of their abilities, committing to the moment, looking after themselves and each other, and removing their own egos in the service of the bigger picture.

Similarly, when the basic four pillars of communication, honesty, trust and respect are honoured in our intimate relationships, we free ourselves to throw away the script, let go of our need to control and to embrace the extraordinary and the unexpected. When we approach our relationships with an improvisational mindset, we make space for wonderful things to happen in the here and now.

Diane Parker is a coach and trainee therapist specialising in creativity, sexuality and relationships, and a member of the Sex 3.0 community in London, UK. She can be contacted at creativecoach@hotmail.com


  • Jacob Ian Stalk

    Huge problem with this approach. Once a person has let go of ego control what they are left with is essentially a blank slate on which can be written a new script. That new script could just as easily be harmful as good. How would they know which? And knowing that it might be harmful to them, how would they know to resist? If they’re a blank slate that is open to any and all new experiences how would they even know how to resist?

    Then there’s the assumption that everyone is capable of working to the best of their abilities all at the same time, and at call. If only we could be like that! Perfect unity, perfect love, perfect harmony – it would be Heaven on earth. But on earth, where real people live, no-one is perfect. Everyone is egocentric to some degree and many are egocentric to a very large degree. What of the consequences of this self-centredness, this imperfection? Our imperfections put us in a never-ending cycle of action-reaction-counteraction, oscillating from highs to lows at unpredictable frequency and often catapulting us from the top of the world to the deepest rut at bewildering speed. It requires immense discipline to be able to improvise relationships in a way that yields positive results in the face of all this. Finding two people with this skill and bringing them together is no easy task, let alone a group.

    Communication, honesty, trust and respect are indeed pillars of wisdom in relationships, but what of accountability? What of moral autonomy? The natural human state is animist – controlled by the id and the ego, by herd/mob rule, by narcissism, by self-gratification, by lust, by greed by irrational self-regard.

    It is absolute foolishness to believe all players in any random group of people are equipped to work together at “the height of their abilities”, simply to switch on this magical fairy tale of human perfection on cue. What are their abilities and how do they learn to work at their height? How does one identify others who are capable of working in this way? Where does one go to find such people? How does one signal to others who might have this capability (presuming they themselves have it and are not self-delusional) that they themselves have it and invite an approach? What test does one apply to prove each others abilities? Who decides what these abilities are and who makes the grade? Isn’t this, in fact, the very question mankind has struggled to answer since the dawn of his existence?

    There is so much packed into these statements the author uses: “committing to the moment”, “looking after themselves and each other”, “removing their own egos”, “in service of the bigger picture”, that merely letting go of self-control simply cannot achieve. The four pillars she asserts – communication, honesty, trust and respect are certainly noble but without a script and careful examination and mastery of it one is not safe to improvise. To believe one can, simply by abdicating control is a recipe for perfect self, not a ticket to perfect harmony.

    Embracing the extraordinary and the unexpected is possible only when one has mastered the script. When we approach our relationships with an improvisational mindset, we may well make space for wonderful things but we also make space for the manifestation of self-delusion and the countless angry reactivities.

    The author paints for us a fantasyland where there is no means of developing responsibility, no accountability and no consequences of human frailties. This, right here, is the heart of the feministpolitik. The precious jewel that psychopathic feminists like The Vagina Monologues’ Eve Ensler believes is the girlish heart of all mankind; the Preciousss that the feminist would have us kill, maim and destroy each other to protect.

    To give these ideas a “self-improvement” polish then promote them as good for relationships is to promote a return to the law of the jungle. In other words, it is the serpent slithering into the Garden with the apple.

  • Diane Parker

    Hi Jacob,

    Thanks for your comments and considered feedback. I think you’ve highlighted a major aspect of improv here, that the brevity of the piece didn’t allow me to expand on further, which is that it is purely experiential – it has to be practised in order to be lived. In much the same way we can read all the relationship advice and self-help books in the world but it’s only when we start applying the learning in our relationships that it really comes alive – which is why therapy is so powerful.

    My post wasn’t intended as a comprehensive guide to improvisation – rather it was me making the peculiar link between my improvisation practice and my personal journey into loving without limits – and the particular issues my clients bring to me – and then sharing that approach in the hope it would give readers some food for thought.

    I agree with you that, as human beings we are controlled by both the id and the ego (and the superego for that matter, which is why the Sex 3.0 approach can be so challenging in what is still essentially a Sex 2.0 world). When I speak of ‘removing the ego’, I don’t mean removing it altogether – that would be impossible – rather, removing it from ‘the scene’, ie choosing not to act from that place in that moment, which is where accountability comes in. In improv we have to make hundreds of split-second decisions constantly. Is this going to be helpful to the scene/the story/my team-mate, or am I doing this to dig myself out of a hole because I’m panicking and scared of looking stupid? Another aspect of improv is that it encourages generosity of spirit – experienced when the players are pulling together, helping each other out of a fix, and forgiving each other when they *do* screw up – and swiftly moving on.

    I certainly never suggested this was easy or made the assumption that everyone is capable of it all of the time. It’s a discipline, like mindfulness meditation, that requires constant practice. I’ve been improvising for ten years and been forming intimate/romantic relationships for twice as long and I have never once given a flawless performance, on stage or off. In fact, there are times I have screwed up royally, and acted out of fear rather than love, and hurt and been hurt as a consequence. That’s because I’m human. There are also times though when I *have* experienced the joy of being in what Czikszentmihalyi calls ‘the flow state’, where everyone (me, my team mates, my partners) *are* working together at the height of our abilities, pulling together in the service of the bigger picture (the scene, the play, the relationship), and yes, those have been moments I would describe as magical.

    Again, this wasn’t intended as polemic – merely a personal and professional insight into how my improvisation practice is helping me (and helping me to help my clients) to learn to love without fear, to practise real, rather than ego-based love (see JJ’s posts on Sex & Religion on this blog) and open my heart and mind to possibility, knowing I am capable of remaining grounded and centred at my core. Note I say ‘practise’, rather than achieve. I’m not there yet. I don’t think I ever will be entirely. It’s a journey, rather than a destination. Take what speaks to you, and leave the rest.