Life can get pretty messy and complicated and scary at times, can’t it? Just like being in the middle of an improv scene when you aren’t quite sure where it is going. I know every improviser can relate to that feeling of panic/excitement when the audience is looking at you and the house is dead quiet and you have no f-ing clue where the scene is headed… and it doesn’t seem to be headed anywhere good.
When I performed Theater Sports in Seattle it was at just these moments when the judges or the MC would whistle down the scene, thereby ending it or “putting it (and by extension everyone in the theater) out of its misery.” After I left Theater Sports I began performing with a group doing scene-based improv. We didn’t have judges and we weren’t performing a “competitive” improv format, but for years we kept the whistle. It felt so safe. We knew if a scene started tanking we could just kill it and move on, saving ourselves the embarrassment of struggling through a crappy scene in front of an audience.
I know why the whistle exists. When you are performing in front of paying people you want the most successful show possible. But right now I’m wondering about its long term effects. Sure, in the short term you don’t have to make the audience sit through crap, and you, the performers, don’t have the downer of struggling through a dog turd of a scene either. Nobody feels down, everyone feels good, happy, having fun, cue the puppy dogs and clown balloons.
When my group finally got rid of our whistle it was not without some serious trepidation. What would we do if a scene began to tank? What if (gasp) we had a sucky show? We did eventually rid ourselves of that safety blanket whistle, and you know what? Something magical happened… we had crappy scenes, and frankly some sucky shows…. But something else happened as well. We began to save each other. Not having a whistle meant that there was literally no way out of the scene unless we got through it. We had to find endings, we had to figure out how to create moments of tension, we had inject our own energy into those flagging scenes. We were not always successful, but as time went on we got better and better at doing it. Talk about trust. In a PRS show there is no sitting on the sidelines watching. We are all actively engaged in every scene, ready to jump in and catch whoever, whatever, is falling. In the long run, the way we got better at improv was by getting through the struggle.
Buddhists philosophy states that life is pain. I once thought that idea was quite sad and defeatist. If life is pain, why bother? Now I see how I have misunderstood the idea. Of course life is pain. Life is struggle and struggle is painful. But, the struggle is the point. It would be great if we could all blow the whistle of life sometimes (insert your own dirty joke here), but that ain’t how it works. You can try to ignore your struggles, but they will always come back to bite you in the ass (bonus points if you can think of a second dirty joke here). To mix my metaphors: St George was right. We have to face our dragons, even if we aren’t sure how.
So, suit up you Buddhist/improv warriors, it’s probably gonna get messy.
Today’s Improvmantra: Live in the struggle.