Paul Z Jackson on the Myths of Improvisation – Parts 1-3

Over the weekend, my family was invited to a very pleasant backyard dinner with three families. Talk always turns to what we all do, and it did. There was a professor of German, an advertising exec, a project manager for Xerox and a gentleman who works in renewable energy membership programs for utilities.

“So you two own a comedy club?” Yes, we do, but there’s a little more to it, and off we went. I’m always interested in what other people do, and how they do it, but I’m finding that we are a curiosity.

The inevitable “I could never do that,” and “I’m not funny enough, ” came up. Frankly, most of the time offstage, we’re not funny, either. And this got me to pondering, in a quiet moment over iced latte and ice cream, about the myths that continue to weigh us down in improvisation.

Today, I caught a tweet in the feed from Paul Z Jackson, the President of the Applied Improvisation Network, about the myths of improvisation. I could rewrite what he said, but I’d rather just pass it along:

 

“Experienced improvisers tend to be very enthusiastic about their craft. Yet many people unfamiliar with improvisation imagine they won’t enjoy it. They feel daunted or even frightened. It’s a response that goes beyond a natural caution when dealing with the unexpected – after all, we face uncertainty every day.

This contrast can perhaps be accounted for by various myths circulating about improvisation. Here is the first of three of the most prevalent.

 

Myth #1: You have to be funny

One myth says you have to be funny. This myth has two main sources. The first is that many people see improvisers creating comedy shows on stage or on TV (Whose Line Is It Anyway? as perhaps the most popular example), so they simply equate improvisation with the performance of comedy. In my view, improvisation is not necessarily about performance or about comedy. The second source is that even in contexts where there is no performing, the moment of improvisation is often funny because of the element of surprise. Laughter is generated by wit or by relief from the straitjackets of tension.

 

Of course it’s okay to perform and it’s wonderful to be funny. But the principles and techniques of improvisation are not about being funny, and trying to be funny is generally a mistake. It’s also a misleading trap, responsible for excluding people who think they cannot be – or who have no desire to be – funny.

 

Improvisation is about connecting, listening, adding, engaging with uncertainty, been present in the moment, attending to the here and now. You might do that for the purpose of being funny. Equally, you might be aiming to get better work from a team; or using improvisation skills to be more confident in how you present yourself.”

Myth #2: Improvisation is for when it goes wrong

You are often called upon to improvise when things don’t go according to plan.

Many of the natural language uses of improvisation reflect this. For example, “It was raining, I did not have my umbrella with me so I improvised some shelter with a sheet of newspaper.” Or, “We were ship-wrecked on the beach so we improvised a hut.”

But it’s not always when something is wrong or plans go awry: it may be that circumstances are slightly unusual or unexpected. You watch a football match and the sports commentator says, “Oh, he wasn’t expecting the winger to make that run, so he’s improvised a clever pass inside.”

Our view is that you can also improvise as a deliberate first choice – with no question of anything having gone wrong. Suppose you know that you will be facing conditions of uncertainty. Or you know that you want to create something new with other people. In such circumstances it makes good sense to choose to improvise. You appreciate that you don’t need to have everything planned. You come in ready to see what happens, to adapt and to respond as events unfold.

Now you find yourself improvising as things go well, able to delay decision-making until the optimum moment, operating with more information, with timely responses to exactly what’s there.

This is the quality of improvisation recognised by surgeons, firefighters and the military. You find it in organisations that devolve responsibility to a front-line, because they appreciate complexity and value what emerges. It accompanies a view of the world not as a static, mechanical model with traditional cause-and-effect predictability, but as a more flexible place, in which reality is not a simple and obvious given, but co-constructed as we go along, client and practitioner, person to person.

That is the sort of improvisation we’re primarily focusing on here: Improvisation by design, where you do it by choice, build your skills and flourish by applying them.

The third myth says that improvisation is chaos.

It’s not. There’s a continuum from complete predictability through complexity and onto complete chaos.

Chaos is chaos, where there’s no structure, no order and no predictability. Improvisation applies best in conditions of complexity – when there’s both structure and freedom; planning and responding. A great deal of our lives takes place in those conditions.

We are always adapting and responding within the normal circumstances of everyday life. Almost every conversation is unscripted, for example. Unless a journey is utterly routine, it will contain improvisational elements – what you see along the way, who you interact with. So it makes sense to think about improvisation as offering support for everyday life, which is somewhere between chaos on the one hand and formulaic fixed structure on the other.

 

There are doubtless other myths of improvisation; those are three key ones we hear a lot, and it’s good to dispel them so that we can really get cracking on the bits that matter.”

 

Paul’s blog is at http://www.impro.org.uk/blog, and you can email him at info@impro.org.uk.