My trip to the Pacific Northwest last month was my first real vacation in years. I don’t have anything against traveling, but I have a hard time leaving my comfortable surroundings for something less predictable. I love to hate my familiar routine of work, play, sleep.
Surely, I am not alone. We can all point to a time where we avoided doing something because the outcome wasn’t clear or we had no idea what would come next. We crave the comfort of the known.
For our primitive, hair-clad ancestors, this impulse was a literal lifesaver – they never wanted to be too curious about what was hiding in that dark cave. But as improvisers, these instincts actively harm our ability to excel at our craft.
When it works, outsiders view improv as magic. How is it that we could create a coherent piece with no planning? As performers, we know tricks to the make the process easier. We aren’t recreating the wheel each time we take the stage. We follow a series of rules that get us into a scene and sustain the game until it is cut a few minutes later.
But what happens when a scene isn’t cut in three minutes?
Last week, I had the pleasure of performing a monoscene with Steven Harowitz at the Book House for their Wednesday night improv series (go check that out if you haven’t). I’ve been performing a lot of Harold, so my monoscene muscle hadn’t been stretched in a while. It feels different. You can take it slow and dig into a deeper relationship, but you also have to build a strong foundation and make the choices that move the scene forward instead of simply heightening the current game.
The only way to push forward is to take that leap into the unknown.
You’ll eventually arrive at a turning point where you’re forced to act in a way that will alter the trajectory of the scene – you’ll have to actually do that thing you’ve been talking about or give a yes or no answer to the question your scene partner’s been posing from the start. We avoid making those choices because it changes the game or relationship we’ve established. We’re afraid to do that because we don’t know what will happen next.
Tough s**t. That’s called improvising.
And since it’s improvising, we can rest assured that something will happen. It has to. If we’ve taken our time to establish the characters and the relationship, we will transform the unknown into the known…until we arrive at the next major turning point.
The longer we avoid doing the thing that’s uncomfortable, the quicker things get stale and boring – which is damaging to the creative mind. To hold the audience’s interest (or to keep our own lives novel and interesting), we cannot continue in a straight line, paralyzed by fear of the unknown.
It’s ok to have no idea what’s coming next. We just have to be brave and have faith that something will come of it.