“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 firstname.lastname@example.org