This week was my first improv class, which I’m taking in order to prepare myself for whatever the release of Um… throws at me. Yes, that’s right, the man who grew up half Catholic and half military (so that when I sin I do it like clockwork and with my shoes shined), the man who is wound tighter than Captain Ahab’s wife’s pocketwatch, is learning how to loosen up. I’m actually a very funny person; it’s just that it takes place early in the morning and lasts for about half an hour. The rest of the time I live behind a cursor that doesn’t care how quickly it moves forward and doesn’t notice when it moves backwards, and most of the time working on texts so self-serious that vinegar would seem like dessert.
We met in a studio over the State Theatre, 12 of us, 11 students and the instructor, Shana Merlin. Now, I’m a cranky student, and I can pick on teachers and teaching style, but Shana was pretty much perfect: on point with the framing, interactive, clear. She’s done this before a lot but isn’t phoning it in. For someone bringing lessons about how to be in the moment, she is.
I won’t get into the existential implications of improv, except to make two observations: 1) many of the improv games we played were forms of language play, whether a word association game, the “one word at a time” game (where three or more people give answers to questions, each saying one word in sequence), or the screaming game (everyone stands in a circle, heads dropped, then you look up; if you catch someone’s eyes, the two of you must scream). The pairing of words is hilarious, and the deformations of syntax are acute (the one word at a time game is actually a good illustration of how sentences aren’t linear, because the direction of a sentence is often decided two or more moves back), but what makes the language play so striking for adults is that it makes you step outside the strictly communicative functions of language that adults adopt. The common grounding of communication itself becomes a plaything; either you invent new premises or you throw out the grounding altogether. Interactions aren’t about communication, they’re about availability and response. This is something that Lee Glickstein says when he talks about the drawbacks of the Toastmasters’ model of presentation training, which presumes that the conditions of communication are present. Often, they aren’t.
This leads to the second observation: adults eventually become fixed in how they perceive and deal with frames (in the Batesonian sense). You begin to take the frames of daily life as immutable, as givens, not negotiated or imposed. So improv gives you ways to see those frames as flexible…also to see how they can be hijacked and pirated.
I wonder if improv is the Toastmasters of the Gen X and Gen Y crowd…more on this as I learn more.