Just Do It. (TM)

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July is for doing it.

With everything awesome there is to do in the city of Chicago this month, don’t just talk about things, Liz.  Do them.

“8) Don’t just talk about something, do it. – No one will honestly tell you that they would rather see two people talk about getting into a food fight rather than actually getting into a food fight (if they do, they are lying and have clearly never indulged in one or watched any of these movies.)  By the same token, no one in the audience paid to see a couple of talking heads. They want to see something happen. If you want to have a sing-off between two characters, don’t talk about who’d win. Do it and let the audience’s response decide.”

Entering the bat cave

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I started my graduate program a little under a year ago.  Figuring out what the hell I was doing was a lot like figuring out what I’m doing every time I do a Harold (a type of long-form improv show, for those who don’t know). Hear me out on this.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I came straight from undergraduate, and even though I had a lot of research experience and strong problem-solving skills (woohoo! Go Liberal Arts Universities!), I had acquired those skills at a cost.  Not having experience at an R1, I never learned the demands or political hierarchy of a big research lab, or the importance of establishing a “programatic line of research.”  I’d never heard the words “mechanism” and “elucidate” used as many times as I did in the first week that I was here.  (Am I right, other grad students?)

Luckily, I’m a quick learner.  I have a better idea of what I’ve gotten myself into, but something new unfolds each day.  The rough thing about graduate school, or at least my experience with it thus far, is that there is no instructions manual whatsoever.  (Unless you can stomach this awesome guide.)  In every job I’ve had in the past, there has been some sort of employee manual, an extensive job description, etc.  I do not envy entrepreneurs – they’re also figuring all of that out on their own.

But isn’t that the rough thing about improv, too?  I mean, sure, you’ve got Truth in Comedy, Improvise, and a ton of online resources (check out these blogs, in no particular order: The Boiling Point, Improvoker, ImprovMantraWomen Improvisers Trust, Bill Arnett, The House That Del Built, USSRock’n’Roll.  There are so many other great ones, but that’s just a random, representative sampling.)  But when it comes down to it, there is nothing that can prepare you for improv better than just doing it.

Last week in class, we were learning how to approach the game-slot of the Harold.  For those unfamiliar with this, a Harold is a type of long-form improvisation that more or less follows a specific structure:

Opening

Scene 1A, 1B, 1C

Game

Scene 2A, 2B, 2C (each of which is some sort of callback to a theme, character, or idea in 1A, 1B, and 1C, respectively)

Game

Scene 3A, 3B, 3C (which sometimes become a run, meaning characters and ideas from different scene-slots start interacting with each other)

For many people (myself included), the game-slot is one of the most intimidating parts of performing a Harold (which, shameless self-promotion, I will be doing at iO on August 26!).  It typically turns into a giant group scene, and often lacks that game-y quality that we’re all looking for (i.e. what else is true?).  In class, we talked a little bit about why the game gets messed up.  It’s honestly a classic bystander/freeloader effect, without malicious intent.  The person who initiates has a great concept for a game, but he is one of about 6-8 people who are about to go on stage.  Knowing that he will never possibly be able to dictate the whole concept for his game without coming off like a douche, he goes out with what he thinks is a great opening line.  But obviously the rest of the team is not inside his head, and so the follow-up line to his opening is less clear.  (Alternatively, he gets really excited about the concept he has and assumes that the rest of the team will fill in the blanks, and runs with the half-baked idea.)  The rest of the team, eager to support, and courteous not to “steal” his thunder/step on his idea, agrees vehemently.  But they don’t “and”.  I say it’s a classic bystander/freeloader effect, because everyone is looking at everyone else thinking, “Well, go ahead, say something.”  “No, please, by all means, I’ll be polite and let you go first.”  “Well, let’s see where Joe is going with this.  He’s got an idea because he started this.  Let’s not be jerks.”  With such a diffusion of responsibility, and everyone trying to be polite to everyone else,  no one says anything!  Then the game is slow to develop, as everyone is fumbling around looking for the pattern.  Or the game turns into the classic group scene, which is comfortable, but not necessarily exciting.  Or it turns into a dictator game because Joe feels the pressure on him since he started the game.  None of these is an ideal situation.  (Perhaps you have thoughts on why the game-slot is so intimidating?  I’d love to hear, if so.)

Well, how do you fix it?  How do we show these game-slots some love?  We’ve got to be like bat-shit crazy, that’s how.  My teacher explained it like this: bats have no idea when they enter a cave where they are going.  But they don’t freeze in hesitation at the cave’s entrance and hope for a miracle.  Nope, they use their sonar system of echolocation to figure out where they’re going as they head in.  Maybe they pause for a brief moment to get their bearings, but they approach a new cave with a sink-or-swim mentality.  They affect their environment and use that to propel them forward.  And that’s what we have to do with the game-slot of the Harold.  Remember that the best way to support isn’t by agreeing vehemently, it’s by giving a gift and helping shape the pattern of the game.  Remember that you might not have any idea what’s going on in the game, but that’s because no one has any idea.  Because the game doesn’t exist until you make it exist.  So go in head first, start screaming your head off like a bat (metaphorically of course), and make that thing work.

You have so much power!  If the first person goes out and she makes a weird noise and movement, go out and make another one.  Great, you guys are part of a machine together.  What the heck does this machine do, and how well or poorly does it do it?  That’s the game.  (If it’s true that you are a human machine, what else is true?)  Or, go out and start rapping.  Wonderful. You guys are a band/rap group – what irks you?  What’s the inspiration for your raps? Or, go out and comment on the mendacious nature of the sound and start a mock-philosophical commentary on Chicago’s streets at night.  Whatever you do, do it!

Looking back on it, that’s what I did to get through this year.  I love what I’m doing and I’m confident that I’m getting the hang of it, but I’ll admit that I’m still riddled with self-doubt (which likely won’t be quelled until I get my first publication.  Or maybe that will only propagate it!).  I’ve been sort of throwing things up at the wall, and seeing what sticks and what doesn’t.  I’ve learned a lot about scientific reasoning.  My content knowledge has increased more than I can articulate.   I can’t show you these things, but I  know that I’ve changed and grown as a researcher.  But I just sort of dove in head first (not aware of how deep of water I was about to tread), and hey, I’m swimming.  (This is an ironic metaphor, since I don’t know how to swim in real life.)

I have so much power to affect my future career – I just can’t let the anxiety of figuring out grad school paralyze me.  The key to success is working through what you don’t know and figuring it out along the way.  A lot of really important science is discovered that way, right?  Some experiment doesn’t turn out right and then we seek to explain why not, and we get Pavlov’s dogs.

“Enter a Harold game-slot, or graduate school, or really life in general, like a bat enters a cave.”  Never in a million years did I anticipate that that would be a piece of advice I would give myself!

Stay out of that pretty little head of yours

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Can’t figure out how to reblog from tumblr, so I’m reposting this awesome Ray Bradbury quote from Kirk Damato’s tumblr:

If we listened to our intellect we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go in business because we’d be cynical: “It’s gonna go wrong.” Or “She’s going to hurt me.” Or,”I’ve had a couple of bad love affairs, so therefore …” Well, that’s nonsense. You’re going to miss life. You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down. – Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

Just a reminder that humans are not logical and rational (if they were, I’d be an economist, not a psychologist.)  In improv and in life, you’ve got to fucking embrace that.

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Great examples of games.

The Midlands' Home for Improv

In the words of MissImp performer Trilochon Chatterjee:

Workshops of the gods

A couple of weekends ago, I joined a bunch of MissImpers at a workshop by Brandon Gardner of New York’s Upright Citizens’ Brigade theatre. The most intriguing part of this for me was his introduction to the idea of ‘game’ in improv comedy.

It gave me a lot to think about – and being me I like that – but ultimately what I got out of the workshop was something I needed: a greater sense of purpose in scenes.

Whether at jams or on stage, you can often be left in the no man’s land of ‘where are we actually going with this?’ Some strong character choices have been made, and interesting details have emerged about them. But then, within a few lines, you and/or your partner have lost sight of your shared purpose. To avoid grinding to…

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If this is true, what else is true?

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My rule for the month of June is to “find the game.”

It’s sort of difficult to describe “finding the game” to people who don’t improvise, especially because there does not appear to be an agreed-upon definition, even among improvisers.  The working definition that I have is that finding the game is figuring out what makes the scene funny work.  I crossed out “funny” because I think it’s a common misperception that improv has to be funny.  Most of the time it is (hence the name “improv comedy“),  but sometimes the funny comes not from what the improvisers are doing on stage but what the audience is taking away from that.  (That’s another discussion for another post.)

Sometimes the game is something that’s repeated (in improv, we really like sets of 3’s – it’s implicit in the structure of a Harold.)  For example, a scene in my class the other day: a woman is telling her friend how to detect if her boyfriend is cheating on her.  “Well, I read in cosmo that if he has a lot of beer in his fridge, it means he’s drinking his sorrow.  He’s probably cheating on you.”  The girlfriend explains it away – he’s been stressed with work lately.  “Well, I read in cosmo that if he said he’s been stressed with work, it means he’s been stressed with keeping a secret.”  The girlfriend explains again – she knows his eye twitches when he’s keeping a secret.  “Well, I read in cosmo that if his eye isn’t twitching when he’s talking to you, it means he’s thinking about someone else.”  Etc. etc. etc., each time heightening the stakes or the ridiculousness.  Sometimes the game is the absurdity of the scene.  At a roommate meeting, one roommate is singled out for driving up the electricity bill.  For leaving the lights on when she’s out of the house?  Nope – for using her vibrator too much.  Two bros are getting pumped (chest bumps involved) for their dude’s night while their girlfriends are out of town. What do they do?  Watch Titanic, drink Sex on the Beaches, and cry their eyes out.  Sometimes the game is the depth of the relationship between the two characters.  Newlyweds are so in love that they both want to demonstrate the extent of their commitment by making sacrifices.  Who will give who a massage?  Who will take the cold shower?  Who will pop the zit on the other person’s back?

All of these “games” take the form of “If this is true, what else is true?”  If cosmo can detect a cheater from their beer consumption (and furthermore, that woman believes this is possible), then what else can cosmo detect (and what else does this woman believe)?  If roommates have meetings to discuss issues or guys have “dudes’ nights”, what are all the possible alternative occurrences that could happen at such events (and which is the best choice for exploring these characters and generating material)?  If this couple is in love with each other enough to take a cold shower for the other, what else would they be willing to do (and what does this tell us about their relationship)? 

If you’re a dumb shit, are you also a poor bastard?

Thus far, here are some situations where I’ve put this rule to use, and what I’ve discovered:

  • Meeting my boyfriend’s family – they really like to play games (not of the improv sort!)
  • Going to a friend’s grandfather’s wake  –  he was a really well-loved yet vulgar old man
  • Taking my boyfriend to meet my family – my family really likes to talk
  • Exploring a relationship with a faculty member – I anticipate a really strong working relationship
  • Getting critique at improv class – I need to be more “alive” on stage; exude more passion for the art

The whole idea of “finding the game” sort of reminds me of this classic children’s book, which I’ve adopted to fit my adult life:

… she’ll ask you to go out dancing.

So this month, my task is to find the game.  Given my intense predisposed curiosity, I don’t anticipate myself having trouble pushing other people’s buttons.  (Just ask my mother – I’m sure I pushed my sister’s plenty when we were growing up.)  I’ll be interested to see if I can observe patterns in myself, as well.

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Been meaning to write about choking under pressure – why it’s good to stay out of your head. This blog aptly states that.

The Boiling Point: A Journey in Comedy

Previously, I’ve written about why you should stop caring.  But it seems that’s harder than we’d like.

Our brains – the very things that come up with all those great improv ideas – are out to sabotage us.  In this Psychology Today article, researchers tried to figure out why we choke.

Big show, big audition, important audience member, you name it.  The pressure’s on.  And it crushes some of us.  The article says when our potential reward is low, our performance is better.  Raise the reward and we start to suck.  Think of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”  As the potential payday increases, people get more tentative.  Hesitancy in an improv show will kill you.

There’s a stupid part of our stupid brains – the ventral striatum.  It lights on fire when we hear about a great opportunity.  Nothing wrong with that.  But when it comes to…

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Say what you mean

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Here’s a bit of Del Close wisdom:

Nothing we say to each other is innocent of emotional manipulation. Everything that we do on stage is to affect each other in some way… Sometimes I suggest we perform on stage as though we are a whole bunch of raving paranoids.  With these paranoid adjustments, nothing I hear is going to be simple. Nothing you say to me is going to be accepted at face value. Ohh? It always means something else.

We are all a bunch of raving paranoids, if you think about it, on stage and off.  We never accept what someone else tells us at face-value; we always expect that there’s more to it, some underlying meaning.

Why? Because we’ve come to understand that we have to read sub-text because people never fully say what they mean.  There’s so much more going on inside that black box of our mind that never fully gets out.  Now given the variability of the accuracy with which we mentally simulate about others, it would make sense if we were just more explicit with each other.  Why aren’t we?  I have no idea.  Maybe we think we are?

I watched the movie Adam the other day.  It’s about the romantic relationship of this guy with Asperger’s syndrome.  It’s  a really great watch; I highly recommend.  But one symptom of Asperger’s is trouble decoding social cues.  His girlfriend was upset one night and he said to her, “I know you’re upset, but I do not know what I should do.”  She said, “It’d be nice if you could give me a hug.”  But with Adam, she had to be even more explicit.  “Adam.  I’d like you to give me a hug now.”

In improv, we have to say what we mean.  For some reason, even on stage, we hide behind metaphors and subtext.  But there, it’s the most crucial that we’re communicating with each other.  If we’re in an opener and we want everyone to start doing the same thing as us, why don’t we just tell them?  The openers are for the improvisers, not the audience.  They’re for us to get on the same page and to generate content for our shows.  And why should that only be true for openings?  I was in a scene a few weeks ago where I thought the other woman on stage was my lesbian lover, and she thought she was my roommate.  Hey, either one worked in the scene, but we were not behaving in a cohesive manner because  neither of us ever clarified.  Would it really have been that difficult for me to say, “Oh, baby, blahblahblah” and put my hand on her arm?  That would work, no?  Or couldn’t she have said “You know, as your roommate, I feel obliged to tell you that blahblahblah”? Both are subtle, but say exactly what we mean.

Now just because someone does not have Asperger’s does not know that they understand what you want.  If you really want someone to know what you mean, you need to say it.  Be explicit.  My friend E upset me a bit the other day.  She knew why – I had misunderstood her intent.  It forced her to be explicit (“I don’t want to upset you. If something is important to you, it is important to me. I had thought that doing x was not a good idea because y.”) but it also forced me to be upfront with my own emotions. (“Yes, but I think x is good because z.  And I am glad that you told me that you didn’t mean to upset me and that you knew why you had, because I was afraid that we were out of touch or that I was overreacting.”)  One of my strongest relationships is with E because we’re able to talk to each other about what is really important, and tell each other what we need, rather than getting bogged down in subtleties.  We confront each other if something is wrong because it’s better to talk about it than let it simmer.

The other day, I finally took a page out of my own book and was upfront with myself about what I want.  It felt awesome.  Let’s see if I can do that in my improv class tonight.

“And I will try to fix you.”

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Please, don’t, Coldplay.

Sometimes people don’t want to be fixed.  It negates the validity of how they’re feeling.  I’m really shitty at not-fixing people – the eternal optimist in me wants to make everything okay, to find the silver lining, the light in a bad situation.

But my teacher made a really good point.

If someone goes on stage and says that they think they’re too overweight, you can’t tell them, “Oh, no really, you’re fine.”  That was their gift to themselves and you – this character either has low self-esteem or is incredibly blunt and comfortable pointing out his own defects.  And you’ve just deprived him of that character trait and yourself of the opportunity to play with that character.  You’ve essentially negated what he’s said.  And where will the scene go from here?  “Oh, yes I am.” “No, really, you’re not. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” “But I am.”  Someone will have to win, and although I’m sure we’ve all had those conversations in real life, they’re better off-stage than on.

If a fellow improviser goes on stage and says that she thinks her husband is going to file for divorce, you can’t say “Oh, I’m sure you’re overreacting.”  Sure, you are endowing this character with a trait they possibly didn’t know that they had, a gift.  But you’re also saying “no.”  You’re denying them the chance to see how this would play out to affect their character and their character’s relationship with yours.

I know it’s our tendency in life to try to make things better – we’re actually a very pro-social species.  But sometimes, people just need to wallow.  Sometimes, they don’t want to tell you what’s bothering them – they just want you to hug them.  That will make it better.  Or perhaps they need to work through their issues on their own and you’re depriving them of some agency.  The best way to fix something is just to let the person know that you’re there should they want your help.

And thank God for the things that are not fixed.  We’d be so boring if we were all perfect.

 

Dig deep into relationships.

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That’s the rule for the month of May.  According to my improv teacher:

“If you don’t enjoy people, if you don’t want to find out about people, then this is not for you.”

She meant improv. I mean life.  She had a really good point.  If the other person on stage doesn’t mean anything to you, then why are you there?  Why wouldn’t you just get up and walk away?  If you don’t want to find out about them, and find out about yourself in the process, what are you doing?  In improv, you need to need the other people on stage.

Thank you (so sincerely) to the people who are my people in life.  The people who I need and who need me.  Thank you.

Also, um, the writers at Grey’s Anatomy and I should team up.  Seriously:

“At the end of the day, when it comes down to it, all we really want is to be close to somebody. So, this thing where we all keep our distance and pretend not to care about each other, it’s usually a load of bull. So we pick and choose who we want to remain close to, and once we’ve chosen those people we tend to stick close by. No matter how much we hurt them, the people that are still with you at the end of the day, those are the ones worth keeping, and sure sometimes close can be too close, but sometimes that invasion of personal space, it can be exactly what you need.”

Carpe-ing the Diem

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It’s a really grand idea, in theory, to live in the present; to stay out of one’s head.

In practicality, though, it’s awfully hard.  And maybe not the best mantra.  Everything in moderation.

Like most of the rules that I’ve tried thus far, I’ve realized essentially that “the rules” are not meant to be hard-fast rules.  “The rules” are training wheels – you tell them to beginning improvisers (like myself) to get them on the right track.  But eventually, in order to become more talented, more comfortable and automatic in your play, one has to learn when it’s okay to bend/break the rules.  The rules, while initially helpful, can be sort of limiting.

Take, for instance, my current profession: graduate student.  If we were all living by my rule for the month of April (“Be present”), no one would go to graduate school.  Or medical school.  Or commit to long-term romantic relationships. Or start their own companies. Or run for office. Or become parents. Or do ANYTHING at all that is even REMOTELY difficult.  Our ids would take over completely (please forgive the expression, fellow psychologists).  The world would be in a state of disarray.  The thing is, there’s more to life than the present, and if we don’t plan for the future, then we will be lost when we get to it.  My “staying out of my head” rule actually started to backfire on me during April.

At first, it was amazing.  I made all of these discoveries that I didn’t know that I was going to make.  On stage: I made a discovery that my character was a divorcee who had a fascination with ensuring that she died in an intriguing way.  It was such an exciting discovery to make, and one that I am not sure taht I would have made had I not been very attuned to what I was saying and the gifts my scene partner was giving me.  I went into the scene (a Home Depot) knowing only that I really desperately wanted to paint my kitchen red.  Everything else evolved from within the scene!  There are actually countless other less salient examples of this that I’ll refrain from detailing in depth here.  The point is, it (“being present/staying out of my head”) worked.  Off stage: I let go of the guardrail I had on my emotions, and as a result, I had some really amazing experiences when I just flung myself wholeheartedly into my relationship.  With Y moving in a few months, there’s no certain promise of a future – that really forces me to appreciate the now.  I stopped stressing about whether I was balancing my life the “right” way (it’s so difficult to strike a balance between family, friends, a relationship, work/school, personal, etc.  Those of you who know my 5 S theory have heard me gripe about this).  I just decided that there is no objective “right”.  What is “right” is what feels “right” in this moment.  You can’t beat yourself up over your decisions or behaviors; they shape who you are as a person.  I even worried a little bit less about what others thought of me and my decisions, because when you’re trying to really live in the moment, there’s no thought of the future social implications of your behaviors.  It’s freeing, really.

But then, the backfire.  On stage: I found myself going up to perform without anything at all in my head.  That is a terrifying feeling.  I tricked myself, thinking, “Aha! Look at me! I’m so awesome-  I’ve stayed out of my head!”  But without even a something there to grab hold of if I needed it, I was insecure.  And frankly, did not have a lot of gifts to offer to my partners.  I understand that the whole “stay out of your head” thing is meant to keep people from analyzing their choices while they’re still in the scene.  It’s supposed to get them to listen to what’s happening, to respond from their gut, to respond naturally.  But sometimes, you need to get in your head in a scene.  You need to identify a pattern that is occurring, in order to figure out what that says about you and your character.  You need to know your characters, and their relationship, and that’s hard to do without analyzing trends in the way that they’re interacting.  As I’ve heard in improv classes many a times, “play to the top of your intelligence.”   Off stage: I found myself dragging my feet to do work that wasn’t absolutely necessary.  “Sure, it would be a good career move to stay in and write this manuscript tonight, but it will be there tomorrow.”  I found myself looking heartache in the face as I realized that I don’t know what is going to happen, and I have been a little bit reckless.  I found myself thinking, “Wow, you live so close to your family; what if something happened to them tomorrow and you hadn’t visited in a while.  How would you feel then?”

Yet, here’s the problem with planning for the future: it’s so uncertain.  You know that saying. that the only thing that won’t change is change itself?  TRUE. A recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy (love that show) spoke well to this point:

“We spend our whole lives worrying about the future. Planning for the future. Trying to predict the future. As if figuring it out will somehow cushion the blow. But the future is always changing. The future is the home of our deepest fears… and our wildest hopes. But one thing is certain, when it finally reveals itself, the future is never the way we imagined it.”

In fact, one of the reasons why the future isn’t the way that we imagine it is because we, as humans, have a variety of cognitive biases.  In psychology, thinking about the future is called affective forecasting, and we are notoriously bad at it.  When we consider events in the future, we ascribe them greater intentionality and greater value than events in the past.  We forget that humans adapt (to both positive and negative events) and we exaggerate how much influence unique events will have on our future happiness and well-being.  It’s hard to plan for the future with any sense of accuracy because we are biased when we consider it, which means it makes even more sense to live in the present and stay out of our heads.  Chances are, when we get to the future that we’ve been thinking about (or the scene on stage that we’ve been planning in our heads), it will be different anyhow.  What’s the point?  Why not carpe diem?

My middle-of-the-road statement is that it’s wise to be conscious of the future (all behavior is driven by our goals and motivations, and what are those if not future-oriented?).  But we should also be aware that our opinions of the future are biased, and as such, that we can only control it to a certain extent.  It’s just as important to embrace today, too.

So, yes, understandably I’m a bit disillusioned with the concept of carpe-diem, of getting out of my head.  But I can appreciate its merits, of which there are many.  Do I regret my living in the moment? Nope, not for a second.  I’m a person who fully disbelieves in regrets.  Especially given the seeming futility in trying to map out what happens next (in life or on stage), it seems that, like all things in life, the advice to “be present” and “stay out of one’s head” is best when balanced.