Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Zen of Improv: The Great Spirit of "Fuck It!"

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 is such beauty in the moment of letting go and saying, “Fuck it." Fuck it, I’m not going to try to control everything. Fuck it, I’m not going to try to do it “right.” Fuck it, I’m not going to do a “good scene” or “be funny” or sound “smart.” Fuck it, I’m not going to be the “Yes, and…” Queen (Gasp!); instead, I’m just going to PLAY. Fuck it, I’m not going to be the caretaker of the scene; maybe I’ll even make a mess and not clean up after myself. Fuck it, I’m not going to stress about not singing in key – and who gives a shit about rhyming anyway? Fuck rhyming. Fuck rhyming hard. Fuck it, I’m not going to be the world’s greatest scene initiator. Fuck it all. I’m only going to allow The Spirit of “Fuck It!” to guide me as I let it all go and step out into this scene with the trust that it’s all going to work out without me trying to do anything. Say it with me, friends:


FUCK. IT.

Ahhhhh. That feels really great, doesn’t it?

I wonder what would happen if we took The Great Spirit of “Fuck It!” into our scenes (or life) all the time? What if we surrendered our need to control and manage? What if we released ourselves from our fears? What if we Just. Let. Go. and enjoyed the ride, facing joyfully into the wind of the unknown with only a sense of fun and curiosity?

This week, I’ve been presenting my improv students with the opportunity to play in The Great Spirit of “Fuck It!” I have to say, it is a liberating thing. There are a couple common exercises – actually a warm up and a short form game – that I find helpful to get us into the “Fuck It!” mind set.  Perhaps not coincidentally, they are two of my personal favorites to do myself. The first is Seven Things. We play it standing in a circle. If you don’t know it, here’s how it goes (or at least how I play it): The first person asks the second to very, very quickly list seven things about this or that, and as the second person is listing them, the rest of the group counts them off with great enthusiasm. So they might say, “Seven things you could wear on your head instead of a hat,” and the second person should list them as quickly as possible. I mean, really ridiculously fast. Ideally, faster than they can even think. 

So it might look like this:

Player 1 (to Player 2): “Seven things you could find in your moustache.” 
Player 2: “Boogers.”
Whole group (excited and super supportive): “One!”
Player 2: “Wax.”
Whole group: “Two!”
Player 2: “Icicles.”
Whole group: “Three!”
Coach: “Faster! Faster! Don’t think, just list them!”
Player 2: “Mouse turds.”
Whole group: “Four!”
Player 2: “Stinky fingers.”
Whole group: “Five!”
Coach: “Faster! No thinking. Just say anything!”
Player 2: “The book The Mixed of Files of Basil E. Frankweiler.”
Whole group: “Six!”
Player 2: “A lettuce dress.”
Whole group: “SEVEN!!!!” (Clapping and merry whooping entails.)
Player 2 (to Player 3): “Seven things you hide under your bed.”
Player 3: “Porn.”
Whole group: “One!”

And so on and so forth until someone pees their pants or you get through all the players, whichever comes first. (In very adept groups, these two events occur simultaneously.)

In my experience, something rather beautiful happens around numbers five or six. The player has listed all their usual reservoir of normal things you could find in a moustache, for example, and then they’ve gone through all their jokey shit … and they still have a couple more to go. Usually at that point, they have this “Fuck it!” moment when they think they can’t think of anything else, but that obnoxious coach is yelling at them to say something, anything. And they give up trying and just do it. That’s when the clouds part and a beam of heavenly light shines down from The Great Spirit of “Fuck It!” above. It’s what I call The Moment of Pure Creativity, and it’s a beautiful thing. Because it leads you to something like “lettuce dress.” (Thank you to my student Peg, who said that very thing at our last class. Yup, I totally stole it because it was the perfect example of The Great Spirit of “Fuck It!”) I mean, who can think up “lettuce dress” - besides Lady Gaga when she’s going through her vegan phase? The answer is nobody. You can’t think up lettuce dress. Lettuce dress is hand-delivered to you from The Great Spirit of “Fuck It!” herself. 

But you have to invite the spirit by letting go. Easier said than done, amiright?

"I love being onstage. I love the relationship with the audience. I love the letting go, the sense of discovery, the improvising."
- Stephen Colbert

The short form game called Buzz is another great way to access The Moment of Pure Creativity. (My improv group calls it Buzz, but you might know it as Ding or Shoulda Said or Do Over or New Choice or probably a dozen other names.) It’s that game when the director says “Buzz” or dings a dinger or whatever, and the player has to come up with a totally different line. You can apply it to just about any a scene, though in the early days, my team always used the set-up of a blind date. Player 1 is onstage waiting for the blind date, and Player 2 is off. 

Player 1 taps her foot.
Director: “Buzz.”* 
Player 1 takes a sip of coffee as if waiting at a cafe.
Director: “Buzz.”
Player 1 revs her motorcycle.
Player 2 enters: “Are you Gertrude?”
Player 1: “Ned?”
Player 2: “Yeah…Hi.”
Director: “Different reaction.”
Player 2: “Um…I’m not Ned.”
Director: “Different reaction.”
Player 2: “Yes, I’m Ned but I also answer to Kathy.”
Player 1 (still revving): “Oh, crap.”
Director: “Different expletive.”
Player 1: “Oh, fuck.”
Director: “Different expletive.”
Player 1: “Oh, pisscakes.”
Player 2: “Mmmm…pisscakes. I knew I liked you from the first moment I saw you, Gertrude.”

And so on and so forth until everyone has an improvgasm. Good night! Sleep well!

(*You could say "Buzz" or “Do over” or “New choice” or “Different movement” or whatever-the-hell you want to call it. I don’t really care. I say “Buzz,” but then sometimes I say something different which probably bugs the shit out of everyone playing the game, but they can consider it a lesson in getting over their attachment to a stupid name. And then they can bite me. Fuck it!)

Both Seven Things and Buzz/Ding/Do Over/whatever give us opportunities to push past those three or four or five answers we already have on reserve in order to allow us to shake hands with our crazyass creative minds in their purest, least guarded forms. I love Buzz because of the third response. Most people can think of one or two perfectly reasonable alternate responses. I’m in it for that third response, which lives out beyond reason. I often wonder what it would be like to be constantly improvising from a place of third response. What if my first response was my third response? What if I could be reacting constantly in The Great Spirit of “Fuck It,” having let go of all control and mainlining Moments of Pure Creativity? Talk about improvgasms galore.

Please note! The Great Spirit of “Fuck It!” doesn’t suggest that we give up when we run out of ideas or patience or inspiration or courage. It’s not the throw-in-the-towel “Fuck it.” We’re not walking away. Instead, we’re continuing to walk forward through the forest of the scary unknown, one step at a time. So we’re not saying “Fuck it” to the whole experience. We’re saying “Fuck it” to our need to control and think through and manage the scene or situation. All we have to do is keep walking forward. One step at a time. 

(Once the TJ and Dave book comes out, you’ll see how this all ties into their brilliant approach to improvising as taking scenes one small step at a time. David calls it “the next little step.” You’ll love it, I promise…or you won’t, in which case, Fuck it.)

Over the course of the last week, some of my students found some exercises scary and intimidating, making it quite difficult to stand up and give it a try themselves when I intone the improv teacher mantra of "Two more up." They froze in their seats. “Fuck it,” I suggested kindly and lovingly. “Fuck trying to do it right or be funny or whatever. I invite you to do a shitty scene. Don’t even try. Just … fuck it.” Much to their great credit, the nervous students usually sighed, stood up, walked to the stage, and said, “Fuck it.” The more we worked on this practice in class last week, the more the nervous
iO Theater (Chicago) is where Tina Fey
learned to fall.
student’s “Fuck it” would be met by a heavenly chorus of “FUCK IT!”s from their classmates. "Fuck it," a student would say before a scene. And in response, the class would enthusiastically and joyfully reply, "Fuck it!" It was like music to my ears and made my heart grow three sizes to hear this community of students supporting each other in taking the next little step, which might seem scary until you let go of trying to walk the whole journey in a single bound. Fuck the journey. Take the step. Fuck doing the step “right.” Just put your foot out. Don’t worry. You’re an improviser. As Del Close said, “Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.” Fuck it!

*


In case you missed it and you're interested,

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?
Like the one when Dave Pasquesi says:

"[The scene] is always happening. I don't need to add anything to it; I just need to find out what it already is ... just trying to let some unknown thing unfold one tiny moment at a time. No plans. No great scene ideas or stories. Just the next little, tiny thing."
*



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."  Written with co-authors TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" is due out Spring, 2015. Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" in Western Massachusetts.



Scrumptious Improv Quotes: Craig Cackowski


Read more smart stuff Craig says in



Mr. Cackowski's suggestion of caring is contemplated in
The Zen of Improv: I Love the Weird Shit You Care About

Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with...Scott Adsit
...TJ Jagodowski
...Jazz Freddy
and many more!

*

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.




Pam Victor gets to talk to great minds of improvisation in the "Geeking Out with..." interview series. Pam performs  "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of this series, at comedy festivals. Currently, Pam is co-writing "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. Pam performs in Massachusetts with The Ha-Ha’s, The MajestersThe Shea Comedy Players, and with the cool cats at ImprovBoston. Get all her nonsense at www.pamvictor.com. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Zen of Improv: Letting Go of the Judgmental Bitch (Non-Judgment in Improv, Part Three)

by Pam Victor

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


I was a super judgmental bitch during the first ten years I improvised. I judged my teammates and myself with equal vigor. Though I thought I was judging us in order to assess our work and get us to a more evolved place, ultimately my judgment was not always helpful to achieving that goal. I tried not to be such a judgmental bitch, but it’s really hard for me to let go. Until the day Charna Halpern, co-founder of iO Theater, screwed my head on a little tighter …

CHARNA: Who wants to work with an asshole who says, “NO, my idea is better”?

PAM: But, c'mon Charna. We don't all work with Brian Stack and [Kevin] Dorff. Chances are, we're going to play with some duds now and then. It's hard to imagine them as geniuses.

CHARNA: JUDGEMENT!!!!
Charna Halpern

PAM: Hahaha. Yes. I know. It's my biggest flaw on stage. And I'm my own worst judge too. (I'm working on it!)

CHARNA: Look at someone like TJ [Jagodowski.] I’ve seen him take people from the audience and play with them. Tara DeFrancisco takes brand new students who have no skills at all and makes them brilliant. Everything is used and everything works. “Judge not lest ye be judged.” (Oops, God just took over the keyboard for a second. I apologize.)

And even if someone isn’t brilliant that night, even if someone comes up with a lame idea by accident because they are totally blocked, let's not forget we also get laughs by agreement. So when the other player takes that lame idea and agrees - and commits to using it - the audience howls ...

PAM: … My next question is, what is the interplay between judgment and assessment? We are not supposed to judge ourselves or others on stage, but does that extend to after the show too? What role does assessment play, of our own work and the work of others, in improv?

CHARNA: 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.
From “Geeking Out with…Charna Halpern (Part Two)”

I can now see why judgment is the enemy of improvisation. If I’m judging the scene, I’m not in it.  If I’m judging the scene, I’m not helping my scene partners. If I’m judging the scene, I’m not listening to the show. If I’m judging the scene, I’m missing opportunities to discover moments of magic and majesty. 

"If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” 
– Mother Teresa

The same applies to life, of course. If we judge our work while we’re working, we’re not really working, are we? If we believe that we buy the Evil Mind Meanies' catchphrase of "I suck/you suck/he sucks/she sucks/we suck/they suck," we’re failing before we’ve even given it a fair shot. I’ve seen a lot of people cut themselves off at the knees by buying into the Evil Mind Meanies' bullshit, and then giving up or self-sabotaging their efforts in some sadly validating attempt to prove that they really do suck after all and they’re not deserving of success. "I was right! I suck!" You guys, I have to tell you something: THE EVIL MIND MEANIES ARE BIG, FUCKING, LIAR-LIAR-PANTS-ON-FIRE, STUPIDHEAD LIARS! 

(The previous was not a quote from Mother Teresa, by the way. Just needed to clarify that point.)

Even if you choose to believe that you are not worthy of success and unlimited joy (Though I think you are!!! You so are!!!), don’t you think it’s worth at least giving it a fair shot? Sure, you risk failure/humiliation/lots o’ crappy stuff; but if you don’t even really give it a fair shot, you’re already failing/humiliating yourself/sitting in a lots o' crappy stuff stew of your own making. Plus as I mentioned in the last post on non-judgment, we don’t know until the show (or life) is over if something really was a “failure.” If a shitty moment leads to a positive one, is it really a failure?

So what's a gal to do when those Evil Mind Meanies start up their “I suck, you suck, we suck, they suck” chorus? It is my understanding that Zen thinking would suggest that I open my eyes (and ears and heart) and notice the moment I’m in.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “Our practice cannot be perfect, but without being discouraged by this, we should continue it. This is the secret of practice.” From what I gather by applying his writings to improvisation, it seems that by always judging and trying to “get better” during my Judgmental Bitch Decade, I always was working towards some goal ahead and living in the future. Once I succeeded in attaining that goal, I would just set another one - but never succeeding to live in the present moment. “Because your attainment is always ahead, you will always be sacrificing yourself now for some ideal in the future. You end up with nothing.” Suzuki counsels, “So as long as you continue your practice, you are quite safe … “

And Tina Fey, Queen Goddess of Comedy, is said to have said, “Confidence is 10% hard work and 90% delusion.” Fake it until you make it, bitches. Instead of buying into the Evil Mind Meanies' song of suckitude, believe the delusion that you're capable of ANYTHING. Or better yet, I suspect I’m not supposed to delude myself into believing that I don’t suck, but just let go of the judgmental bitch mind all together. (My next book will be called Zen Mind, Judgmental Bitch Mind, soon to be made into a movie staring Tina Fey me ... because I'm capable of anything!) Who knows how this all is going to work out? Who knows how events will stack up through the rearview mirror? Only
This is my cat.
fortunetellers and my cat. (My cat is psychic.) I guess the only thing to do is bitchslap the Evil Mind Meanies, and carry on. (Make that into a t-shirt. Donate the profits to an animal shelter.)


If you don’t mind, I need to re-absorb Suzuki’s words: “So as long as you continue your practice, you are quite safe …" In improv, I was taught by TJ and Dave that "the practice" is the focus on the scene at hand. Listening and reacting honestly to the moment. If I could improvise like I breathe, always in the present, I’d be safe.

Ironically, the present moment is the REAL Golden Time. (Someone should tell Joe Bill … although I suspect he knows already.) We need to stay in the present to be of best service to the scene and our scene partners. How can we stay in the present? Listen without ears, eyes, hearts, and gut. Pay attention. Take a moment to breathe. And have faith that it all will be fine.



*


In case you missed it and you're interested,
and

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?
Like the one when Dave Pasquesi and I have this exchange:

PAM: Much ado has been made, in certain circles, about that “First Moment” in a TJ and Dave show, the one when you look at each other and gracefully step into your characters. Do you ever look at TJ and think, “Oh crap. I got nothing”?

*



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."  Written with co-authors TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" is due out Spring, 2015. Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" in Western Massachusetts.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment: (#18: A Job Offer)

by Pam Victor

[The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment is my one-year challenge to make a living through creative pursuits. Read all the updates here.]


He was saying all the words a woman wants to hear. He wanted me. The money was almost three times as much as my goal in this Experiment. I would start in mid-August ("coincidentally" exactly after the Experiment formally ends). I would be working for a cause I deeply believe in. 

But ...

There's always a but, right?

(That's what she said?)

BUT the cause is alternative education, not improvisation. (You didn't think I was talking about prostitution, did you? Jeesh, you guys. I would never do that! So many men, so little applause ... though now that I think about it, probably lots of standing o's.)

Ok, get my mind out of the gutter.

Seriously, I cannot express enough how deeply I care about providing non-traditional education for kids. Anyone of you who have felt held hostage by me while I rail against the fucked up educational system know all too well that this topic the stirs limitless passion and ire in me. You can't educate the whole child in a bureaucracy!!! Children are not just cogs in the capitalist wheel! The current system doesn't educate; it only trains kids to become mindless consumers! Soylent Green is people!

"Coincidentally," just a month or so ago, I was sitting in an angry, weepy mess in my car waiting for my daughter to be released from the latest lockdown in her public high school. (It was not my choice for her to go there. I don't want to talk about it.) This time, it was a bomb threat called in to the high school, which was eventually evacuated. My daughter and a couple thousand other high schoolers were trudged out of the high school and were now locked in the nearby middle school gymnasium, awaiting dismissal. Dismissal not from class but from a bomb threat. I was livid. THIS is how we educate the next generation of children?! Can we all agree that any system that propels children to be so desperate that they regularly threaten to bomb the school or - goddess forbid - actually do shoot up the school is deeply, deeply broken?????????

Ok ... breathe, Pam. Breathe.

Brewing in my bitter angst in my car that afternoon, I decided that I had to walk the talk more. Rather than bitch and moan about the problem, I became determined that afternoon to work for a solution. And after a bit of thought, I decided there was one place I knew of that had one possible solution for the abject failure of the public school system to produce well-rounded, analytic and independent-thinking human beings. In fact, this place offers a very good solution with a proven record. I decided right there and then to put my back into supporting this place.

You see where this is going, right? 

(No! I'll tell you just one more time, I WAS NOT OFFERED A PROSTITUTION JOB. Holy cow. You are ridiculous.)

It's going here: The kind man saying all the words a woman wants to hear was offering me a dream job at this exact place. For the exact amount that would be crucial to getting us out of the college tuition pit - way more than $16K, you guys. Money my family needs to stop dipping into our savings every month. The only catch was that taking this amazing dream job would mean The "Can I Make a Living Doing What I Love?" Experiment would not continue beyond August 1, 2015 because I would not have time or bandwidth to do the work I'm currently doing. 

Oh, Life, you tricky minx, you. You teasing jester. You taunting bitch. Silly, silly life.

I thanked the generous man with the kind eyes and set off into the night. I was as clear as I was conflicted about which road to take. Six months ago, I would have jumped at this job. Now it turned down the corners of my mouth and brought my brows together in an expression that will be permanently etched into my face sooner rather than later. (Stupid wrinkles.) Do I give up my dream to take this dream job?

The thing is, you guys, the Experiment is going pretty well. I am making my modest, monthly goal. (In December, I made up for November's shortfall.) But much more than that, I feels like I'm doing something Right and Good for me. Have you ever had the sense that doors were opening up for you all the exact time you needed them to? That's how it feels for me right now, I am very grateful to say. Small opportunities are presenting themselves to me, little by little. Sometimes I have to listen harder than others to hear them, but I'm very often hearing them. This road that I'm on has a neon arrow sign pointing very clearly straight ahead. Not to alternative education, but towards my goal of making a living doing what I love, mainly in improvisation-related fields.

So, feeling like a dumbass, I told the nice man, "Thanks but no thanks." I stood at the crossroads and took the scarier road leading to the unknown. 

I guess if it doesn't work out, there's always prostitution.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

 Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

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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 performs  "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of the written Geeking Out with... interview series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Along with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, Pam is the co-author of "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ & Dave Book" which is due out in Spring, 2015. Read all her nonsense at www.pamvictor.com

Friday, December 26, 2014

Scrumptious Improv Quotes: Joe Bill



Read more Joe Bill poetry in


Joe Bill's concept of Golden Zone is contemplated:
The Zen of Improv: The Mind Meanies (Non-Judgment in Improv)
* * *
Catch up on past improv geek-a-thons:
Geeking Out with...Scott Adsit
...TJ Jagodowski
and many more!

*

And "like" the "Geeking Out with..." FACEBOOK PAGE please.




Pam Victor gets to talk to great minds of improvisation in the "Geeking Out with..." interview series. Pam performs  "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of this series, at comedy festivals. Currently, Pam is co-writing "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. Pam performs in Massachusetts with The Ha-Ha’s, The MajestersThe Shea Comedy Players, and with the cool cats at ImprovBoston. Get all her nonsense at www.pamvictor.com. 

The Zen of Improv: The Mind Meanies (Non-Judgment in Improv, Part Two)

by Pam Victor

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


Improv big guy Joe Bill calls the first 15 - 30 seconds of a scene the “Golden Time” –  which he defines as the time it takes an improviser to hate what they’ve just said. We’ve all gotten off the stage and thought, “Well, THAT sucked.”  (Haven’t we? Please tell me it’s not just me???) And come on, let’s just admit it, we’ve all been in scenes and shot eyeball-daggers at that dude onstage who we were absolutely convinced was the one really stinking up the show. 

That’s a lot of judgment. A lot a lot of judgment. We judge our scenemates when we’re in the show. We judge the performers when we’re in the audience. And like Joe Bill says, we judge ourselves the most. I call these thoughts the Evil Mind Meanies, those assholes in
our heads who habitually conjugate “to suck: I suck, you suck, he sucks, she sucks, we suck, you suck (plural), they suck.” (In French, that’s “je suck, tu sucks, il suck, elle suck, nous suckons, vous suckez, ils/elles suckent.” Though I could be mistaken about whether "suck" is a regular or irregular verb; I truly do suck at French verb conjugation.) 

I’ve had people tell me that they didn’t feel they could be any “good” at improvising. Some of these people had taken an improv class or two. Many had not. These folks have insisted that they could “never be good at improv” because they’re not good at “thinking up” interesting scenarios. (That’s a good thing! Because I have been taught that we don’t have to think up anything in improvisation; we only have to notice what is already there.) They say they’re not funny. (That might not be such a bad thing either, in my opinion.) They say they’re not fast on their feet. (Good! They get to learn a new skill that is easy to get better at with practice.) These aren’t people who are aiming to audition for a Harold team at a big city theater. These are people who are thinking of taking an introductory improv class, who have already caved in to the message of the Evil Mind Meanies before they even took the first step.


“People suffer because they are caught in their views. 
As soon as we release those views, 
we are free and we don't suffer anymore.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh, 
The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: 
Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation

As I posited in Non-Judgment in Improv Part One, I truly and whole-heartedly believe you cannot be good or bad at improv during your first year (and maybe forever), particularly in class and rehearsal, by any standard or measurements. Though we may feel more or less successful during the journey, I strongly feel that putting the Evil Mind Meanies’ judgment on others or on ourselves is ultimately counter-productive to the process. Improvisation is a practice, like yoga or golf or gardening. You can’t judge your skill as a yogi after your first downward dog. Tiger Woods didn’t say, “I’m a shitty golfer” and put down the clubs forever after his first swing. It's not fair to expect your little dirt patch to look like the cover of Awe-Inspiring Gardens Galore! after your first growing season. In fact, when you plant the seeds, you don't have any idea which ones will grow or not - there is that necessary ingredient of faith coming in! All you can do is plant a bunch of seeds, water them, and keep showing up every day to tend to the garden little by little. Some seeds grow. Some don't. That’s just how life goes, and even the back of the seed packet doesn’t promise 100% yield. Each season, you learn more and more about what worked and what didn't. Each season, you harvest more tasty veggies. Each season, some whither and die or get gnawed on by a naked mole rat or are blanketed in some fucked up mildew. But I know one thing for damn certain: You definitely can't plant a seed one day, come back the next day and call yourself a bad gardener because there isn't a full-size pumpkin waiting for you. 

It is exactly the same with improvisation. We can’t take a class or two (or three or four), get gnawed on by a naked mole rat onstage, and decide if we’re a shitty or spectacular improviser. Maaaaaybeee after a year of practicing, rehearsing, and/or performing at least once every week, then we can do some assessment. (Or maybe not.)

But that begs the questions, "When the time comes, how can we assess each other and ourselves in our work?" (I'm not entirely sure of the answer, and I'd love to hear your thoughts about it.) I know for sure where assessment can’t be done: Onstage. Recently, I had a show where the audience was real quiet. That’s how I chose to think of them when I noticed their response during the show, “Boy, these guys are real quiet.” They weren’t laughing a lot, but I wasn’t sure that meant they weren’t enjoying the show. When writing our book together, TJ and Dave taught me that if we judge a show by the laughter of the audience, we’re going down the wrong path, one that often leads us to make desperate choices out of fear. Since the worst seat in the house is onstage, I was in no position to determine if the audience was digging our shit the other night. All I knew they weren’t laughing a lot. But they weren’t grumbling or shifting in their seats either. They were quiet and attentive. They still seemed to be enjoying themselves. And even if they weren’t, the only thing I could do during the show to help – if the show even needed help - it was to remove my focus from something I had no control over (what was going on in the minds of the 74 people in the audience) and point it towards something I have some control over (the scene happening onstage). Let’s get out of the audience’s heads and pay attention to our scene partners and think, “Ok, where’s the joyride in this scene and how can I have the most fun ever?”

As Mark Sutton, the Artistic Director of Training and Development at The Second City, said in a class, “Your brain is incapable of creating and evaluating at the same time.” Personally, I tend to believe almost all of what Mark Sutton says, so I guess we aren’t even wired to evaluate the scene that’s happening anyway.  And even on the outside chance that Mark is wrong and we are capable of evaluating the scene we’re in, do we even want to? Is self-evaluation during a show helpful in having a “good” show? Does self-judgment during a show make it easier or more fun? 


Go see Improvised Shakespeare Company
immediately and repeatedly.
(I'm very serious.)
There was one Improvised Shakespeare Company show that I saw at iO-Chicago a couple years ago which I’ll hopefully never forget. During an early scene, one actor made a very non-specific reference when establishing a neighboring town. Since ISC works at the absolute tippy top level of improvisation across the board, this “failure” to be specific was noticed joyfully by the cast, who took it and ran with it. The generalized nature of this neighboring town became a central part of the plot, with whole songs improvised about that town, which the players gleefully referred to as having either hills or valleys or was seaside or landlocked and a flag that was either red or blue and populated by people who were either friends or enemies. (I’m sure I’m getting those details wrong. Many apologies to Improvised Shakespeare Company, but hopefully you get the point.) The show was very fun, incredibly entertaining, extremely hilarious, and astoundingly skillfully performed. It was also very beautiful … and it embodied for me the idea that a mistake doesn’t exist in improvisation until the show is over. It's only when the lights go down can we look back and perhaps judge if a move was “good” or “bad.” And even then, if it was “bad,” then maybe the blame rests not in the person who made a mistake but in the whole cast’s failure to make it “good?”


“A mistake is your greatest comic gift.”
- Susan Messing

And I suspect I’m even making a mistake right here by even suggesting we should judge our work at all. (Or is it a mistake? Maybe it’s not a mistake because it’s leading me to better thinking???)

But I’ll let you be the judge (or not!) next week inThe Zen of Improv: Letting Go of the Judgmental Bitch (Non-Judgment in Improv, Part Three)
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In case you missed it and you're interested,

Or how about some of these "Geeking Out with..." interviews?
Like the one where Geeking Out with....Joe Bill (Part Three) 
when he says, 

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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."  Written with co-authors TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" is due out Spring, 2015. Currently, Pam teaches  "The Zen of Improv Comedy" in Western Massachusetts.