–Keith Johnstone, quoted by Malcomb Gladwell in Blink
I recently learned that improvisation in comedy theater relies on specific rules that allow the action to run smoothly. The most important one is that both actors commit to agree, to accept all offers made, to keep the action going. Here’s the example Johnstone, one of the founders of improv theater refers to (115):
The first exchange, where this cardinal rule is not adhered to by the actors, goes like this:
A: I’m having trouble with my leg.
B: I’m afraid I’ll have to amputate.
A: You can’t do that, Doctor.
B. Why not?
A: Because I’m rather attached to it.
B: (losing heart) Come on, man.
A: I’ve got this growth on my arm too, Doctor.
In a very different exchange, but with a similar subject, the same actors agree to the rule of agreeing to whatever the other actor says, no matter how ridiculous:
B: Whatever is it, man?
A: It’s my leg, Doctor.
B: This looks nasty. I shall have to amputate.
A: It’s the one you amputated last time, Doctor.
B: You mean you’ve got a pain in your wooden leg?
A: Yes, Doctor.
B: You know what this means?
A: Not woodworm, Doctor!
B. Yes. We’ll have to remove it before it spreads to the rest of you.
(A’s chair collapses.)
B: My God! It’s spreading to the furniture!
I found this lesson on improvisation immensely inspiring. It’s the sort of example of how saying YES to whatever comes next, however absurd, can be the foundation of surprise and creativity (and let’s face it: hilarity!). A willingness (and enthusiasm) in experiencing surprise is one of the joys of living. It’s surprisingly (and NOT in a funny way, I might add) that many grown-ups struggle with this. The ability to be surprised is somehow perceived as letting on that we don’t know something, that we are gullible, or (god forbid), easily amused. I myself fully embrace my ability to be easily amused, even if it means risking appearing less sophisticated. The inadvertent laughing until I cry or–yes, this is far worse, and I will add very, VERY uncommon–until my drink comes out my nose pretty much precludes me from sophistication anyway. It has happened. Oh, well.
I recently read a prescription for leading a creative life not only is to be available and willing to be surprised at least once a day, but to surprise someone ELSE once a day. This is more of a challenge in a world where consistency and order are valued as adult and responsible traits. Following the rules of improvisation seem like a good start, though. What would happen if we agreed to suspend disbelief and cynicism at least once a day to wonder what would happen if we said YES to that which seems unbelievable?
I heard a story not too long ago on the radio about a flamingo that fell from the sky in Siberia, in the middle of winter, in sub-zero temperatures. Two boys ice fishing nearby witnessed it, and brought the pink feathered giant home, warmed it, fed it and made it the family pet (until it bit the family dog). That’s a gorgeous act of improvisation if I ever heard one.