Our beloved Chelsea, being an ‘only dog’, taught me to play. No language was needed. She would just put her front paws and her nose down, lift up her rear, and wag her tail, and that told us it was play time. The preferred game was ‘chase the dog’, wherein I would chase her all over the yard (or the house, including up and down stairs) until I was exhausted, at which point she would stop and wait for me to catch my breath. When I caught her, roughhousing ensued, including gentle play-biting and fierce tummy-rubbing, followed by more chasing. Occasionally I was allowed to be the pursued, and she would chase me, but only for a few seconds. She always initiated this play, and she taught me to get pretty good at it. Many variations were introduced over the years, usually by her. Frisbees were often involved.
Improvisation has been defined as “unrehearsed, synergetic social activity”. To me, it could equally be defined as “minimally structured play”. It involves simultaneously (or iteratively) and spontaneously teaching and learning, collaboratively, with others. It’s demanding work, and, if done properly, great fun. It is how most of us (could) learn best, ahead of reading or listening or even being shown.
It includes conversation, group stand-up (“who’s line is it anyway”), jazz improv , dancing, cooperative games (frisbee again), flirtation, play (with those who have not forgotten how), and perhaps even sex. There are no ‘rules’, although some standards may emerge over time by mutual agreement, but there are competencies, tactics and attributes to good improv.
The competencies include: active listening, paying full attention, inventing, self-expression, reacting quickly, remembering, teaching/helping quickly, learning quickly, letting go and letting come. There is a zen-like state that you can get into if you have, and practice using, these competencies: It’s a combination of extreme alertness and extreme relaxation. That’s only a paradox to the incompetent. Arguably, it is our natural state.
The tactics include building and drawing on others’ actions (“yes, and…” rather than “yes, but…”), exploring, reflecting, complementing, mimicking, and what someone has called “moving with and moving against”.
The attributes include intimacy, engagement, true ‘whole is more than the sum of the parts’ collaboration, and reciprocation.
The paradox of practicing improv is that, if done well, it can make you so good that you’re restless improvising with others who aren’t, yet, if done badly, it can make you worse, entrench habits that are hard to unlearn, and make improv so tedious that you give up on it entirely, so you get no practice at all. As a horrifically bad dancer who still loves to dance, I can attest to this personally. As the Phil Collins song goes: “I can’t dance, I can’t talk, only thing about me is the way I walk” — the confession of an incompetent improviser.
Some people think improvisational ability is instinctive, an inherent talent — you either have it or you never will. While good instincts are probably helpful, I don’t think they’re essential, and most improvisational actions are not instinctive — they are quickly but consciously thought, or perhaps more accurately felt. It is not anticipatory either — if you second-guess what the others in your improv group are going to do you will no longer be paying full attention, you’ll be caught if you guess wrong, and you risk becoming a boring (predictable or competitive) improviser.
I’m far from an expert at improv, but I’m starting to learn, slowly, what works. I think it’s mostly about getting yourself into the right space, and learning the above-mentioned competencies, and not trying too hard. Practice helps, but this is a natural process, and it’s not as important as being ready.
The most important part of getting yourself into the right space is self-awareness, self-confidence, self-comfort. Over the years I’ve delivered speeches and presentations (not an improvisational process, but hear me out) that have varied from word-perfect to full of hesitancies and blank-outs. Lately I’ve learned to pay attention to my state of mind (enthused, animated, and playful, versus full of dread, uninspired, and discouraged) and my state of body (relaxed, healthy, comfortable versus tense, pained, stressed). Those pre-existing states are expressed in, and determine, the quality of my presentations, far more than how well I know or have rehearsed the material. I’m sure the same is true of improv: being ready (i.e. in the right state) is more important than being practiced. Though to the casual observer, the improviser who’s in the right state looks to be doing it instinctively, and looks to be practiced.
My granddaughter does improvisational art. We work with a large (18″ x 24″) whiteboard and those dry-erase coloured markers. We just start drawing, anywhere, together. She responds to what, and how, and when, I draw, and the result is often remarkable, a collaborative work. Just like Chelsea, she teaches me to be better at improvisation.
Now you know all I know about this important subject. Tell me more. Yes, and…?
Other Writers About CollapseAlbert Bates (US)
Andrew Nikiforuk (CA)
Carolyn Baker (US)*
Catherine Ingram (US)
Chris Hedges (US)
Dahr Jamail (US)
Dark Matter Women Witnessing (CA)
David Petraitis (US)
David Wallace-Wells (US)
Dean Spillane-Walker (US)*
Deena Metzger (US)
Derrick Jensen (US)
Doing It Ourselves (AU)
Dougald & Paul (UK)*
Gail Tverberg (US)
Guy McPherson (US)
Jan Wyllie (UK)
Janaia & Robin (US)*
Jem Bendell (UK)
Jonathan Franzen (US)
Kari McGregor (AU)
Keith Farnish (UK)
Kristinha Anding (US)
NTHE Love (UK)
Paul Chefurka (CA)
Paul Heft (US)*
Post Carbon Inst. (US)
Richard Heinberg (US)
Robert Jensen (US)
Roy Scranton (US)
Sam Mitchell (US)
Sam Rose (US)*
Tim Bennett (US)
Tim Garrett (US)
Umair Haque (US)
William Rees (CA)
Archive by Category
My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 145 Posts, by category, from newest to oldest ---
Dying of Despair
Notes From the Rising Dark
What is Exponential Decay
Collapse: Slowly Then Suddenly
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Making Sense of Who We Are
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
If We Had a Better Story...
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
A Short History of Progress
The Boiling Frog
Our Culture / Ourselves:
The Lab-Leak Hypothesis
The Right to Die
CoVid-19: Go for Zero
The Process of Self-Organization
The Tragic Spread of Misinformation
A Better Way to Work
Ask Yourself This
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
May I Ask a Question?
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
Learning From Nature
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
Republicans Slide Into Fascism
All the Things I Was Wrong About
Several Short Sentences About Sharks
How Change Happens
What's the Best Possible Outcome?
The Perpetual Growth Machine
We Make Zero
How Long We've Been Around (graphic)
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self, and Free Will:
Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark Bark
Healing From Ourselves
The Entanglement Hypothesis
Nothing Needs to Happen
Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
No Choice But to Misbehave
What's Apparently Happening
A Different Kind of Animal
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
Reminder (Short Story)
A Canadian Sorry (Satire)
Under No Illusions (Short Story)
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
My Other Sites
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons License.