Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Writing the TJ & Dave Book (#7): Living the Documentary

My Pam Victor

["Writing The TJ & Dave Book" is the series plucked from the journal I kept while writing "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. You should buy the book here. (I mean, if you want to.) 
You can see the whole behind-the-book blog series here for free.]


We spent a few hours on an early spring Sunday afternoon of 2013 talking about God and improvisation in David’s Air BnB studio in Soho. The work when focused – which is about 60% of the time – was fascinating, challenging, and fun. But TJ and Dave got distracted easily. Or perhaps it would be more apt to say that they did their thinking best on their feet and with palette cleansers of movement and joking around. The image of David pacing back and forth with his long legs like a caged tiger in the tiny, tiny studio while I push and pry to expand and fully comprehend their ideas will stick with me for a long time. After every 15 minutes or so of work, they'd stop to go to the bathroom or talk about something else or pretend to electrocute each other with a hanging lamp.

TJ & Dave
Barrow Street Theater (2013)
Photo credit: Pam Victor
The coolest thing about working with them on a show day is seeing parts of our conversation end up in the show that night. Yesterday, one of their work breaks was a detailed discussion of ball bearings and if that was how a BB came to get its name. Later that night in their show, they played two teenage boys cleaning up a yard of sticks. Taking a break to lie in the grass, idly wondering how so many sticks wound up littering the yard, David's character - who confessed to feeling "squirrelly" that day - hit upon the idea that squirrels were the probable cause for all the sticks. That lead to a discussion of killing them. Which lead to BB guns and ball bearings. The conversation moving from one moment to the next absolutely without force or agenda, just one little step at a time. And there I was, smiling my ass off with recognition, alone in the packed audience.

TJ & Dave
Barrow Street Theater (2013)
Photo credit: Pam Victor

Back in our Soho nook, another break was taken to get coffee for David. (I dearly hope David's wife gets to experience the same tender affection and whole-hearted love that he heaps on a good cafĂ© americano. And if she does, she is a lucky, lucky woman indeed.) Walking down a New York City street with David Pasquesi is like being a contestant in “The Amazing Race.” With his long legs and purposeful, direct stride, let me tell you, that dude can book. There was David beelining it towards the coffee shop as if he was the only person walking down the street, with TJ and I frantically dodging people and lampposts, struggling to keep up and laughing together at the antics. “He neither dillies nor dallies,”  said TJ as we broke into a run to cross the street in time. 

On the way back from coffee, I pointed to a beautiful, little hidden garden tucked into a corner with meandering pathways, benches, water features, and freshly opened flowers. David and I sat on a bench –
(I know how much of a creeper
it makes me that
I took this photo on the sly.
Please forgive me, Dave.
I wanted to remember.)
rather I sat on a bench next to David – while TJ stood a distance away, smoking and poking at his phone. While Dave was teaching me about opium harvesting, TJ came over and said, “Hey, Dave. Look at those two women over there on the bench. Looks like they’re on a first date or something.” TJ and Dave examined the women, who really did appear to have some mysterious air to their interaction or at least a relationship not easy to read from our distance. As they were sharing their analysis of the scene, I was thrilled to realize they were assessing the Heat of the relationship, a concept we had just written about manuscript. Here were TJ and Dave warming up for their show that night in a New York City park. Just like they had done in their documentary Trust Us, This is All Made Up. And nobody else but me was there to see it. 


So.
Fucking.
Cool.



*

If you're interested in reading more of my slurry, check out

The latest is about the self-flagellation we do after a show, 

Or perhaps you'd like to read interviews with great minds in improvisation in the Geeking Out with... series here?

Might I suggest

*

Pam Victor, along with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, are the co-authors of the newly released "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book." Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series and The Zen of Improv series as well as mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on the blog "My Nephew is a Poodle."  Pam is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show.   Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Zen of Improv: The Shoulda Coulda Woulda Game

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about  the mind-expanding, groovy side of improvisation and other hippy shit. 


There will always be scenes we look back on and cringe a little. Whether they took place in the classroom or onstage, whether we’ve been improvising for a few months or a few decades, whether the show as a whole was outstanding or not, we often look back on a scene and play the “Shoulda Coulda Woulda Game.”

“I should have said yes to her offer to …”

“I could have listened better at the top of the show, and then I wouldn’t have missed the part when ...”

“I would have had a better show, if I had only …”

It seems to me that just about everyone gets the "shoulda coulda wouldas” now and then when a scene feels icky. So what shoulda coulda woulda we do about it? 



First of all, I hope we’re playing the Shoulda Coulda Woulda Game well after the scene is over and not during the damn thing. Judging the scene while we're actually performing it is a good path to Crapastic Land because we’re in our head being all judgy ‘n shit rather than in the scene where we should be. So, yes, let’s save the assessment until well after the show please, shall we?

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, 
concentrate the mind on the present moment.” 
- Buddha
Secondly, we need to give ourselves a break. We're learning! Improv takes years - DECADES! - to feel comfortable with ... and even then, many players never really feel confident every time they get off the stage. And certainly none that I know, even the best of the best, feel unbeatable. That is one of the most delicious Zen parts about this art form: We are always beginners. The only difference is that, after years of stage time, experienced improvisers become more comfortable with the fact that they're always beginners. (And if we ever forget it, the next show could give us a slap upside the face as a reminder.) 
Martin De Maat

Still need to pick at the scab after the scene? Ok, the best advice I have received about looking back on a questionable scene was from Scott Adsit, who said he was taught by Second City guru Martin De Maat to only "coulda" and never "shoulda." 


The charming Mr. Adsit was kind enough to summarize this lesson from Martin De Maat for me for this article (somewhat edited by me):
"This stems from Marty's view that there is no wrong move or reaction. What happens is what happens and we deal with what we have in each scene. When you're dissatisfied with how a scene went, to say "I should have done A" or "She should have done N" is in effect writing the scene. If that happens during a scene, you're dead. So, Marty wanted us to approach the work with that off the table. 
Photo credit: Pam Victor
Because once you start thinking a scene must go in a certain direction (yours,) you are in your head. And more importantly, you think you have to "fix" the scene in order to fit your personal game plan. I've seen more than one good, seasoned improvisor destroy scenes by forcing everyone on stage into the roles and motivations that he has mapped out in his head for them. Actually "correcting" his partners' statements. In effect, saying quite plainly and maniacally, "No." It's really obvious when it happens too. It's an ugly sight. Some are subtle about it and others are blunt. I've done it myself and I always regret it. Always ...
That's the result of "Should have." "Could have" allows you to release yourself from your own sterling brilliance and realize that the brilliance is in every move your partners make. That their misinterpretation of your initiation is a gift to be accepted, cherished, expanded and re-gifted... "


Thank you kindly, Scott. 

There is no “shoulda” in improv. We can't change the scene. It was what it was. We did what we did. But "coulda" we made a different choice? Of course. Could we or our scene partners have made lemonade from what we saw as a lemon of a scene? Probably. As Susan Messing says, “A mistake is your greatest comic gift.” So maybe what we really "coulda" done better was judge the scene as a gift rather than a mistake? Rather than picking at the scab (Damn, boy, that’s so gross. Stop picking at that thing!), after the show let’s figure out how we “coulda” turned that moment into a gift, whether within the scene itself or in a subsequent scene.


Charna Halpern and I talked about post-show assessment and judgment in our “Geeking Out with…” interview. She advised, “I definitely think folks can and should talk after a show to assess what went well and what went wrong. Absolutely. But keep in mind, it’s all in the semantics. You can say something to let someone know what you meant to do and not come off ACCUSATORY. It’s important to talk about what worked and what didn’t work and why, so you can work on the problem next time.” This is where “coulda” comes in handier than the pointy finger of “shoulda.”



One of the most important assessment questions we can ask ourselves is, "Did we learn from that so-called lemon of a scene?" If so, maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world after all. If not, we’d better figure out the fucking lesson, buster, or we’re going to be sitting in this particular shit ditch again real soon. Chances are, the lessons we need to learn from the stinky scene revolve around the twin orbits of “Being a Good Stage Partner” and “Fear.”



Let’s look at Being a Good Stage Partner first. Here is where lettuce comes in. (Finally! A blog post with lettuce!):



“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce.” - Thich Nhat Hanh


Let's put that lovely Thich Nhat Hanh quote into the improv translator machine. We when improvise, if it doesn’t go well, you don’t blame improv/your scene partner/the show/the audience/yourself. You look for reasons why it didn’t go well. And the answer to why the scene didn’t go well might be about how we failed to take care of each other in that particular moment. Because if we know how to take care of our scene partners, they will grow well. Like the lettuce. Rather than blame the lettuce after the scene, perhaps these questions might be more helpful: How could we have better taken care of each other in that scene? How could we have made each other look more brilliant? 



Furthermore, debriefing after a scene is not about blame; it’s about learning to be the best improvisers we can be. And beating ourselves up about how we/he/she/they/you “fucked up” that scene is probably not the best path to becoming a better improviser. To this end, compassion, for yourself and others, might be another useful ingredient to the de-briefing stew.


From www.quotejunk.com


Now the other common cause of wobbles in improvisation: Fear. Oh boy howdy, could I talk about fear for a long time! But I won’t, I promise. I’ll just say that, chances are, fear was the demon in that shitstorm. To quote my own damn self and my damn co-authors TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi in Improvisation at the Speed of Life, “Succumbing to the fear, which causes us to react without integrity and grace, is the true archenemy of good improvisation.”


Fear. It’s a bitch. But again, we gotta cut ourselves some slack here. It’s hard to dive headfirst into the unknown. It's also hard to be vulnerable. But often, that's exactly where we need to go. Vulnerability yields lots of wonderful material. As Del Close said, "Follow your fear." (I'm a quote machine. Very annoying.) To that end, here are a few more hopefully helpful de-briefing questions: Where was the scene going? If you were to take the oars out of the water – not allow fear to cause you to fight against the current and follow the scene where it was going - what would have been your character's most natural response? When you look back on a scene, you would know best where the moment was honestly taking you. (And if you don’t know, then it might be good to work on the skills that allow you to pay attention to where the honesty of scenes can be found.) I find that paying attention very, very carefully to all the clues helps us know the most logical and honest response. "Who we to each other? How do I feel about this person?" Those are the most important questions that help me, personally, find the honest, most ease-full path. Hopefully.



I’m going to leave you with this thought – and I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to yell it (lovingly) because I want to make sure the people skimming this article pick it up: When playing the Shoulda Coulda Woulda Game, THINK ABOUT THE SCENE FOR NO LONGER THAN THE ACTUAL LENGTH OF THE SCENE. Was it two minutes and thirty seconds of putrid shitstorm? Fine. Have a super fucking ugly pity party for two minutes and thirty seconds of rage, tears, snot, chest pounding, clothes rending, and cursing. 



Ok. Time’s up.



Now let’s ask ourselves again: Did we learn from that scene? If so, since the object is to become a better improviser, then we made a good choice in the scene! Well done.



What next? Let’s get out there and do it again. More improv, more better. More practice. More practice. More practice. Some lemons. Some lemonade. More lemons. More lemonade. And one day, we might be lucky enough to realize we know nothing at all.


“Of all the things in the world I should have learned, I probably know the most about improvisation and I know almost nothing.”

 – TJ Jagodowski, Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book

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If you are interested in exploring some 
more Zen of Improv pieces, 
you might enjoy this related piece:


Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?
Like the one where Charna Halpern yelled at me,
"JUDGEMENT!!!!"


Or maybe you're interested in getting the inside skinny on my experiences writing a book with my improv heroes?
The series Writing The TJ & Dave book starts here.
*




Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in Western Massachusetts. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle."   TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book." Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.

Writing The TJ & Dave Book (#6): Radio Interview with TJ and Pam

Here's a short radio interview that TJ and I did on The Bill Newman Show on WHMP (Northampton, MA) about writing 
"Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book."


Like we said in the interview, 
you can buy the book by calling up your local bookstore and ordering it, 
picking it up in Chicago at the iO Theater box office
or getting it in Greenfield, MA at The Happier Valley Comedy show.



Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Writing The TJ & Dave Book (#5): The World's Sexiest Grilled Cheese Sandwich

by Pam Victor

["Writing The TJ & Dave Book" is the series plucked from the journal I kept while writing "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. You should buy the book here. (I mean, if you want to.) 
You can see the whole behind-the-book blog series here for free.]


On the afternoon of April 4, 2013, I spent four precious hours with TJ and David in the deliciously dank pit of Cabaret Theatre at iO [on Clark.] We managed to edit all of one chapter. I am not entirely sure why it took that long. We were focused for the most part – save the brief settling in period, lunch break, and ample joking around time – but we hadn't hit our groove yet at that point and the going was slow. Though not unpleasant in the least. 

Things I did that afternoon:

Writing The TJ & Dave Book
(April 3, 2013)
  • Talked about improvisation for hours with TJ and Dave 
  • Said “That’s what she said” to David Pasquesi (for the first but surely not the last time)
  • Talked to David about when Del was dying
  • Listened to Dave talking about the creation of The Harold as he experienced it
  • Held my own (I think)

Half of me was thinking, “HOLY FUCKING SHIT! LOOK AT WHAT I’M DOING!” The other half of me was thinking, “Ok, guys. Get to work. Focus. Let’s get this job done.” But the pace of the process was the pace of the process. Looking back, I can say we were writing a book at the speed of life. (Ar, ar.)

I also had the privilege of talking about the previous night’s TJ & Dave show, asking some questions and basically observing them re-live some moments they enjoyed. I have to say, that part was spectacular. At one point out, David referred with bemusement to a scene in which they were playing cops getting into a cruiser. TJ had played a really funny officer in the passenger seat, not wanting Dave to drive recklessly and spill his coffee. There was talk of gyroscopic mechanics, if I remember correctly.

That day-after-the-show just a couple feet where they had performed, David was remembering getting into the car and “finding” the seat way pulled back


That spine-tingling moment
at the top of a show in 2013
“I could have put the steering wheel anywhere I wanted,” he laughed. “But for some reason I put it way out here.” He mimed again holding a steering wheel at arm’s length. I think his delight in re-living this moment stemmed from truly being in that discovery sweet-spot, where the improviser surprised his own damn self.

I believe a little bit of that moment made it into the book during our conversation on Heat and Weight.

For me, a particular highlight of our rare in-person work session was at the Salt and Pepper diner, next door to iO. (Sadly, this part definitely didn't make it into the book.) While we waited for our take-out lunch, I stood there for about three awe-filled minutes watching TJ and Dave do a mimed bit about a grilled cheese and avocado sandwich which morphed into sexual innuendo, to my great delight, the jokes silently ricocheting between them. They were performing for each other. And maybe if you're feeling generous, you could say that they were performing for me as well. But mostly for each other. It was one of those out-of-body experiences that often popped up in those salad days, when I remembered who I was working with, what we were attempting to write, and the weight of the talent in the room with me. 

At that time, my role during their most playful moments was the character constantly trying to catch up without betraying the fact - in vain, I suspect - that I was trying to catch up. There I was, stumbling clumsily along behind them, trying to figure out if they were being serious or teasing, and desperately attempting to decode the private, mental communication bouncing between them. But reading between the silent lines constantly flying through the air between TJ and Dave was nearly impossible. Half of the joking was said out loud, a quarter was delivered in subtle body language and eye signals, and the last quarter was in a silent, private twin-language only they understand. The recipe of the TJ & Dave magic.

I sure do hope some of that might have made it into the book, if you look real hard.


*

If you're interested in reading more of my slurry, check out

Or perhaps you'd like to read interviews with great minds in improvisation in the Geeking Out with... series here?
Like maybe  Geeking Out with...The Harold (What Makes a Harold a Harold?)

*



Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in Western Massachusetts. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle."   TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of the newly released "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book." Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Writing The TJ & Dave Book (#4): The Moments

by Pam Victor

["Writing The TJ & Dave Book" is the series plucked from the journal I kept while writing "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. You should buy the book here. (I mean, if you want to.) 
You can see the whole behind-the-book blog series here for free.]



The Moments: Journal Entries from Early 2013

“Anyone like ‘The Moment’ for a possible book title?” That was TJ asking on a text thread between the three of us. (Be still my heart. Would there be a time when this was a ho-hum occurrence? I hoped not but feared so.)

I didn’t say this out loud (and by “out loud,” I mean in the text,) but if I have to be perfectly honest, the title “The Moment” brought up immediate images of Debra Winger in a ‘80s Lifetime movie in which she falls in love with Robert Redford on a sailboat to a Celine Dion song, and then dies. But when it comes down to it, this ain’t my book. So I texted back, “I’ll put it on the list of possible titles.”

We continue to exchange few more texts in which we discussed our first rejection from a literary agent (“Our first rejection!” I wrote, “I’ll put it in our scrapbook!”) And then David texted, “TJ. I do.” 

And then David added, “Oh god, that was for The Moment suggestion. I hope you don’t think that I meant … But I would that too. I mean do.”

“Awwww! That is definitely going in the scrapbook!” I girlied out all over their text thread.

Another TJ and Dave moment to an audience of one. Me. One lucky motherfucker. If the whole book thing ended tomorrow – and I half-expected it would just because Dorothy doesn’t get to stay in Oz forever – at least I would have moments like that.


* * *

In a whispered hush with my BFF Laura, I shared my nagging worry that in writing this book, I will be the catalyst of the demise of TJ & Dave. I suspected that one of the reasons they resist introspection and glory stems from a fear that such belly button gazing and over-analysis would harm the show. 

Perhaps TJ & Dave is perfect because it remains unexamined by them? What if their protracted introspection kills the magic of TJ and Dave?! I can just hear what people would say in the dark corners of improv theaters and classrooms, the fable that would be handed down along with things Del Close may or may not have said, “TJ and Dave were the best…until…” And then in a barely audible whisper, “…the book…” 

I would be the person who killed TJ & Dave! I would be persona non grata in the improv world, forevermore to be referred to as “she who shall not be named.” WHAT IF I KILL THE MAGIC OF TJ & DAVE?!


* * *

A friend who does Tarot card readings offered me one to allay my fears about stepping into the unknown with this book. The last card that came up, the “outcome card,” was a fireworks of celebration. I didn’t want to talk about the reading with anyone, fearful of tempting fate. All I could do was look towards the next meeting …


***

TJ, David, and I were having a phone meeting about the book, again going over titles. One of David's favorites was "This Shit is So Fucking Easy." Through slightly gritted teeth, I told him that 95% of the people who would hopefully hold the book in their hands actually don't find the shit very easy. I know I don't. 


He said, "That's just because people want to think it's hard, so it is hard." 

I'm pretty sure he was yanking my chain. (He likes to be ornery.) However, perhaps there is some truth there? If a chapter ends up being called, "This Shit is So Fucking Easy," you'll know where it comes from.


***

In my effort to absorb as much TJ and Dave as possible during this data-collection phase of the book, I found myself wandering over to YouTube and watching a couple Sonic commercials. However in geeking out over a bunch of damn Sonic commercials - WTF, Pam??? -  I wondered if I possibly crossed a line of decency and propriety.

Please don't look at me. I'm disgusting.


***
I watched the commentary version of “Trust Us, This is All Made Up.” Probably the fifth or sixth time I’ve seen the show, though first time I’d watched the commentary. I found it delightful and insightful, and I laughed a lot when TJ signed off at the end with, “Thanks for watching, dorks.” He was talking to me! 

(I know this for a fact mainly because I’m probably the only person who watched the whole commentary.)

(Oh? You watched it too? That’s great, you fucking dork.) 


* * *

Jonesin’ for more TJ and Dave ammunition for the book, I shot off an email to David asking if he could get me some DVDs of their iO shows. His response was, “How many do you need? All I need is an address.”

A year ago, this interaction would have blown my mind clear off my shoulders.

Yeah, David Pasquesi personally is delivering TJ and Dave shows to me. I feel like I’m going to be struck down with lightning just for writing that sentence.

Follow up: I slowly savored the shows, parsed out over several months. Each show is different and brilliant in its own way. Some are fast and hilarious. Some are slow and immensely skillful. But, holy fuck, they are all … yeah … my challenge will be finding the words to describe their brilliance for the book beyond the words “holy fuck.” 


* * *

Last night, I had a dream that they made the TJ & Dave show into a movie. 

As a puppet show.
***

One day, David and I were talking on the phone going over material for the first chapter. He was at a hotel while on location for a TV show. He stopped mid-sentence and said with delight, “Oh. TJ is on TV right now.”

All I could think was, “What is the new world I am in?”



***

Zip Zap Zop. I was talking to TJ and David about that game. I had this strange fantasy to make a video of them playing Zip Zap Zop. (TJ sagely warned me to back off from that idea if I wanted David to ever speak to me again.)

“South of the equator, they play Zop Zap Zip,” I quipped during the meeting. “You know," I added when they didn't laugh. "The Australian drain theory?” After a contemplative pause, I added, “I heard somewhere that it’s a fallacy that the water goes down the drain in the opposite direction.” 

Dave said, “Yeah I heard that somewhere too.”

Me, genuinely trying to wrack my brain, “Huh. I can’t remember where I heard it though. It was a good fact.” 

Dave replied, “Probably a couple guys who didn’t know what they were talking about.”

And it was at that moment that I realized I had been quoting as fact something I’d heard in a web series. A web series called Graveyard. Starring Christian Stolte and … blerg … David Pasquesi. 

You can watch that episode here. And please by all means, go ahead and tell me if in three weeks you don’t remember it as coming from a science book.  

God. I’m such an idiot.




* * *

The hardest part about working with two of the smartest and funniest improvisers in the world is that I never get to be the smartest or the funniest in the room with them.

Don’t tell TJ and Dave I said that though.

One day during a meeting, I actually blurted out, "You know, I really am very smart!" (How can you tell when someone is not smart? They are the person who has to say out loud that they are smart.)

It's exceedingly frustrating what an idiot I act like around them. (Fuck you, nervous energy. Go away.) It's like the more I act like a stupid idiot, the more they see me that way. And the more they see me as a stupid idiot, the stupider I feel. And the stupider I feel, the stupider I act. Gah! I am better educated than both of them. Hello, Smith College, cum laude! Plus a Master's degree! (How can you tell if someone is not smart? They have to tell you about their academic degrees.) Everywhere else in the world, I am seen as a fairly intelligent, insightful, well respected human. And then I get into a meeting with these two ...

*

If you're interested in reading more of my slurry, check out

Or perhaps you'd like to read interviews with great minds in improvisation in the Geeking Out with... series here?
Like maybe  Geeking Out with...The Harold (What Makes a Harold a Harold?)

*



Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in Western Massachusetts. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle."   TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of the newly released "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book." Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Zen of Improv: Improviser's Mind Beginner's Mind

by Pam Victor

[The Zen of Improv is a series of articles about  the mind-expanding, groovy side of improvisation and other hippy shit. 


For a long time, I was confused about the amount of modesty I encountered when talking to my improv heroes. I expected them to sit high on the thrones I put them on, laugh haughtily, and expound confidently in a deep baritone, “This is the way I improvise and you should too.” Instead, I encounter profound humility almost everywhere I turn, most of all from our most admired improvisers. (With one notable exception, which I’ll happily dish the dirt about if you ever have the opportunity to buy me a margarita or slice of pie.) 

In the improv mecca of Chicago, I find this humble nature the most striking of all. For instance, improv goddess Susan Messing said to me, “I think my joy is that I haven't been kicked offstage yet ... and that people I play with would agree to play with me.” Susan Messing has said some pretty eyebrow-raising thing - bless her heart - but that someone of her stature would say something like that shocked the hell out of me.

And when I geeked out with TJ Jagdowski of TJ & Dave, we had this exchange

PAM: After all this time, do you feel sometimes that you suck? 
TJ:  Yeah. Oh, God yeah. 
PAM [incredulous]: Shut. Up. 
TJ: No, I won’t shut up. 
PAM [laughing]: That’s it! Shut up! We’re done. 
TJ: Yeah. Oh, yeah. And a lot of people that I think are really good would maybe be at a point in their craft where they don’t suck anymore. And I know they feel like they suck. Dave feels like he sucks sometimes … You never get passed blowing it. 
PAM: I think you’re perception of not achieving is probably different than mine or the audiences. 
TJ: No, this is objective sucking... 
PAM: I’ve seen you perform a lot since I’ve been [in Chicago]- 
TJ: I haven’t sucked in front of you? 
PAM: You haven’t sucked in front of me. 
TJ: Well, I’m on a good streak. 
PAM: Could happen at any minute. 
TJ: Any time. I reserve the right for that to end at any time …
While writing Improvisation at the Speed of Life with TJ and Dave, I quickly discovered that a good way of getting their hackles up was to call them masters of improvisation. “We are not masters and we never will be,” David told me firmly. 

At first I thought this modesty might be good ol’ Midwestern “Aw, shucks” charm. But then I started wondering if their mindset wasn’t a Great Lakes aberration but rather a necessary component of improvising skillfully for decades on end. That’s when I started to see improvisation as a practice rather than a final product. We’re always practicing, never mastering. Always beginning, never taking home the trophy.

What is this apparent humility so common in great improvisers? 

First of all, not all improvisers see it as humility. In Improvisation at the Speed of Life, we discuss that it’s not necessarily a humble quality but rather a basic requirement of improvisation. TJ Jagodowski says, “They tell you from the beginning that your partner is the bigger thing. That the show is the bigger thing. That the moment is the bigger thing … I don’t know if humility is the word for it. But service is inherent.”

Secondly, improvising well is nothing we can ever take for granted. The very nature of improvisation requires that every time we take the stage, anything can happen, including major "objective sucking." The shit-show is inevitable, and, in my experience, the best way to attract the shit-show is by thinking I’m immune to it. And the most experienced improvisers carry the most scars of moments that fall flat, stone cold audiences, and shows that felt like performing in a vat of mud. Maybe it’s the roll-of-the-dice element and inherent service of improvisation that prompt our most talented and experienced performers to maintain the Zen concept of “beginner’s mind?” Ironically, this mindset may be just the thing that makes them great performers. 

You only have to venture as far as the prologue of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind where Shunryu Suzuki writes, “For a while you will keep your beginner’s mind, but if you continue to practice one, two, three years or more, although you may improve some, you are liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind … This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few."


As I understand it, "beginner's mind" is about staying open to new ideas, taking risks, living in a state of not-knowing, being curious, eager, and ready. With a beginner’s mind, everything is new and interesting and accepted. Think of when you started driving. Every moment was mindful. Every movement was conscious. Personally, I couldn’t even listen to the radio at first because the act of driving itself took all my concentration. A beginner is on high alert, trying to see everything, absorb everything, and improve constantly. And these days? Most often, I pull into my destination without one clear memory of the entire drive. Terrifying but true. And probably not the best way to perform as a driver. If you see me on the road, steer clear.

I’ve been wondering lately how the idea of beginner’s mind translates directly to the stage? For starters, I replaced “zazen” with “improv” when I read this:
The most important thing is to forget all gaining ideas, all dualistic ideas. In other words, just practice zazen in a certain posture. Do not think about anything. Just remain on your cushion without expecting anything. Then eventually you will resume your own true nature. That is to say, your own true nature resumes itself.”
― Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice
I translate that to: Just remain in the scene without expecting anything in order to discover our most honest reactions. A lot of times, the more practice we have, the farther away we get from the honest curiosity and openness of our beginner’s mind. I remember a conversation I had with TJ once about how to figure out what was a truly honest response in a scene, and I mentioned using my “improviser instincts.” He castigated me, saying that if I’ve had so many improv classes that I had forgotten my natural, honest human instincts and react only according to my improviser training, then I’ve taken too many improv classes.  (Note: I scaled back on the workshops and classes immediately.)

But you know what I’m talking about when I say "improviser instincts," right? We’ve been through so many scenes that we can classify them and play them out automatically – “Oh, he’s playing the guy in the office who sees everything in superhero terms. All I have to do is put myself in jeopardy, so he can have something to save. ‘Ah! I’m being swallowed up by the copier! Help me!’” After a while onstage, heightening and pattern-playing become muscle memory, and we stop seeing the limitless possibilities of the scene. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” Maybe that’s what worries those stellar improvisers so much? 

Habit – of raising stakes, playing patterns, establishing the who/what/where, or whatever - turns off the beginner’s mind. In the unfortunately titled Breathe, You are Alive! Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “But our habit energy is so strong. That is why we need each other in order to stop and establish ourselves in the present moment ... Every time the runaway horse of habit energy shows its head, pushing us on, we breathe in and out and say, ‘My dear friend, I know you, the habit energy of running.’ We smile to it, and it is not able to push us any more. It will go away ... We don’t have to fight. All we have to do is recognize it and smile to it.”

But to be perfectly frank, sometimes I don’t feel like doing all that breathing in-breathing out mumbo-jumbo. I don’t want to have to sit crisscross-applesauce on a cushion to get my improv on, but I’d still like to get the benefits of "beginner’s mind." So I guess I have to recognize my habits and tell them to fuck off smile at them? Onstage that could mean being curious about where the scene is going rather than mapping it out in my head according to an “arc” or by “following the funny.” Quieting myself and really listening to the scene taking place already rather than sliding into the well-worn path. Taking risks because I don’t know where they will lead rather than following some formula of “How to Improvise.” In order to improvise into the multitude of unknown places that scene could go, I need to let go of those improviser instincts and that habit energy and instead shine the light on my human instincts. The beginner’s mind says, “I don’t know what’s going to happen! Yay!” and “I wonder what is going to happen next?” and, most importantly, “I have to pay attention to my scene partners to discover what’s going to happen next,” which all seem like a much more fun way to play anyway. And definitely would make me a more fun person to play with in the long run.

Every time I get onstage is an opportunity to practice “beginner’s mind.”

Lucky beginning improvisers, they can skip that practice and just be.



“Everything is perfect and there is always room for improvement.”
– Shunryu Suzuki
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Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in Western Massachusetts. Pam writes (and performs) the Geeking Out with... interview series. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle."   TJ Jagodowski,  David Pasquesi, and Pam are the co-authors of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book." Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" and "Mindfulness Through Laughter" in Western Massachusetts.