The Tao of Improv

Robert Taibbi

“Hey, Mike! Give me a hand with this, will ya? It’s heavy.”
“Sure, Joe.”

Apparently my name is Mike and I’ve decided to call Brad, Joe. We both crouch down and mime picking up a roughly 4 by 4 imaginary concrete block. We creep slowly, bent knees, our arms outstretched, taut.
“Let’s put it down here.” Brad / Joe says. Be careful of your back.”
“I got it, I got it,” I say huffing.

It is the weekly practice of our improv troupe,
The Improfessionals, and Brad and I are starting a 3-person scene; Ann, stands on the sidelines waiting for a good time to enter. In improv fashion our fellow actors have set up the scene by giving us suggestions: Brad and I are brothers who run a concrete factory, and Ann is surprisingly free to be any character she likes. But to ramp up the challenge, they have endowed each of us with a phobia – mine is a fear of bold print, Brad’s is a fear of aftershave lotion, and Ann’s is condiments. Somehow we need to work these into the scene and our characters.

Brad and I put the imaginary block down. We both stand with hands on knees, puffing like race horses.

“Hey,” says Brad, carefully walking around the “block” towards me. “I took a glance at the new invoices this morning. Doesn’t look good – there’s a bunch of bold print in a lot of them. You better let me take care of them.”

“Whoa, thanks man,” I say, patting him on the back. “The companies never used to do that so much. But now… I was going through those receipts last Thursday, it just sneaked up on me. Right in the middle of the page, in some like 48 font. Freaked me out! I had to put it down as soon as I saw it, and it took me forever to settle down.” I shake my head as though trying to dislodge the memory.

“I know, I know,” says Brad, hugging my shoulders. “Don’t worry about it.

I stumbled into improv several years earlier. It was a time in my life when I had just finished emotionally marching through a some significant losses – the death of my father, then my first wife – the hospitalization of my daughter. I was also bored with my job – lots of long-winded, stagnant community meetings, worries about the morale among my 40+ staff, sweating the quarterly budget review, and having little time for clinical work. I felt dazed, dull. Then one day I stumbled on a sign posted in a store window. A woman was offering improv classes, and to my own surprise, I called, and then actually showed up. The class was a good mix of men, women and backgrounds – a computer guy, an aikido instructor, a research biologist, a salesman, a musician, a poli-sci student – folks very different from my usual world.

I liked the energy of the group. As we got to know each other, I started to feel like I did in high school – having a gang to hang and fool around with. Our teacher gave us different exercises and challenges each week, and I found myself playing characters much like my clients – drug dealers, hyperactive children, depressed moms. In contrast to regular lives, we were encouraged here to not to plan or even think, but simply do. What came out was often strange, off-the-wall stuff – guessing games involving traveling to work on a giant soap bubble, a bar scene where you had to wear a 3-cornered hat to get served, a bizarre reinterpretation of Snow White where Snow White has heavy romantic crush on Dopey and the evil stepmother is actually a brush salesman. I wasn’t bored. I wasn’t calculating. I wasn’t worrying. And most everything we did seemed hysterically funny, a good antidote to my low-grade depression.

After a year of lessons, our class decided to start a performance group, and like every garage band in the country, we took any gig would could – 10:00 pm Tuesday at a local bar, a Thursday afternoon at the public library, the annual Vegetarian festival at the park, the random high school reunion, an out-the-way coffee house – usually for gas money, with an occasional beer or coffee thrown in. Sometimes we were hot, other times not, but like a lot of introverts I found that I liked being on stage.

You probably know at least a bit about improv –a Second City show,
Who’s Line Is It Anyway on TV, unscripted movies like Waiting for Guffman or The Mighty Wind. Watching this type of comedic improv gives you the impression that the actors on stage are either comic geniuses, on heavy doses of really good medication, or both. They’re loose, witty people who have the uncanny ability to think on their feet – to make up country-western songs about toothpaste on the spot, to create incredulous scenes about OCD accountants balancing books while floating in outer space. Great stuff.

But, like most arts, what seems so easy and natural is actually the product of lots of hard work. Beneath the quips are hard-learned skills, and beneath these skills is a structure that is almost invisible. These are the rules of improv, the assumptions and worldview upon which the actors build their scenes and create the experience. Improv is like it’s cousin jazz, where what drives the musician is not some impulsive and random banging of notes, but a careful, yet spontaneous construction built around chord progressions and melodic line. It’s like therapy, a very different conversation than the one you might have with the neighbor you meet at Wal-Mart, one both goal-directed yet unrehearsed.

The rules of improv, I found, paradoxically, showed me how to be more free and creative. They provide a unique way of approaching relationships that is generous rather than closed, supportive rather than competitive, organic rather than scripted. How I felt when doing improv made me wonder how my own work and life might be more creative if I simply tried to applied them.

Brad and I are talking about the big block order that has to go out that day. We’re doing the talking heads thing – standing around, mumbling. The energy in the scene is draining; we seem a bit lost. Ann enters to come to our rescue.

“Hi, guys,” she says, high stepping onstage, talking in that slight southern accent that she does so well. “My name’s Trish. How are you boys today? I’m your local Mary Kay representative,” she says with a big smile and pointing to an imaginary name badge. “Nice concrete plant you got here,” she says, circling her hands around the room. “ I just love these cinder block walls – so gray and… solid. So, I was in the neighborhood and wondering if you’d be interested in seeing some of our latest Mary Kay products?”

Rule #1: Yes and. This is it, the holy grail, the mantra of improv. Yes and means that you accept all of your fellow actor’s offers, rather than blocking – denying, ignoring, changing – what your partner just said. Brad calls me Mike, and I don’t say, Hey, wait my name is Tom. When he asks me to help lift the heavy block, I don’t say I’m busy and can’t, or Come on, it isn’t that heavy. We follow each other’s lead, rather than competing for the lead, and in the process discover and create our relationship and reality: We find out in a few moments that we’re brothers who help each other; that Brad’s tends to be protective and tries to shelter me from the bold print that he knows upsets me; that I may have a bad back.

And you fully commit yourself to the reality you both create. You don’t forget about the imaginary block is in the middle of stage and absentmindedly walk through it; you stay within your character and don’t stand suddenly upright after you just said that your back hurts. And when Ann says she is Trish from Mary Kay, we don’t say, Gee, you don’t look like a Mary Kay rep, or that we’re guys and don’t care about cosmetics. Instead we say, Yes indeed, we’d love to see your stuff.

Yes and is a Zen-like state of mind. You work with what life offers rather than fighting against it. You stay open and build on other’s ideas, rather than always dismissing, resisting, and jockeying for power. It’s the counter to the Yes but, the No, the defensiveness and anger that we usually hear from clients struggling with their relationships.

As therapists this is what we are fundamentally about – it’s active listening, it’s Rogerian unconditional positive regard – and we do our best to try and pass this along to our clients. It may be part of our clinical philosophy, the notion that a client’s problem somehow makes sense, that solving it means unraveling and understanding it, rather than forever pushing it away. But even for us, our own anxiety takes over sometimes and the
Yes and becomes Yes but. Mary says that she’s decided to stop taking her meds, or that she cut herself again yesterday when her supervisor said she was late again, and you find yourself saying: “Hmmm, Mary, I don’t think that stopping the meds is such a good idea; you know, your depression symptoms will probably start coming back” or “I thought we agreed you were going to call your sister when you got upset” rather than saying something like, “I understand, Mary, what you are saying. Can you tell me why you decided to stop, why you felt you needed to cut.” Rather than saying yes, and joining and understanding Mary, we react negatively, we challenge, sound scolding and dismissive. We hear resistance and try and overpower it.

Brad and I start acting like teenagers competing for a girl’s attention. “We don’t get many pretty visitors like you,” says Brad. “More fat truck drivers and guys with tool belts. Have a seat,” he says, dusting off of the chair on stage. “You want a cup of coffee? It’s fresh.”

I physically nudge him aside. “Hey, Trish, I know what you’d like. How about a nice ketchup sandwich? It’s Heinz.” I say, smiling and holding up the imaginary meal. “Just made some for lunch. I have extra.”

Ann lets out a gasp. “Did you say ketchup?” She’s hamming it up. “Oh, God.”

“That’s okay. If you don’t like ketchup, I also have a mustard and relish sandwich,” I say, straight-faced.

Ann lets out a yelp as Brad moves in to help calm her down. I struggle to keep from laughing.

Rule #2. Act / React. The core belief here is that everyone on stage should be always working to contribute to the scene. If Yes and is about attitude and acceptance, this rule is about taking responsibility and confronting fear. You do this is by being courageous and following your instincts. Put something out there and trust that your fellow actors will follow your lead. Take the risk, don’t hold back, make bold choices. Don’t talk about taking action, don’t wait for the “right” moment, act now and see what happens. Pick up the block, stand on a chair, then justify after why you are picking or standing. Act – take responsibility for creating the relationship – then let others respond, listen, and react and build on their responses.

The opposite of all this – caution, hesitation, not pulling your weight – is what creates scene death. Instead of acting and adding to a scene – you malinger – pretending to smoke a cigarette while waiting to see what your teammates do – adding little in content and energy. The worse form of this irresponsibility is what is known as “pimping” your partner. You ask open ended vague questions – So where are we? What’s your name? – rather than making a clear proactive statement – I’m so glad the hot air balloon was able land here in the Sahara desert; or I’m Tom and I don’t think I’ve ever met a leprechaun like you before. Instead of saying a joke you say to your partner– “This is the funniest joke I have ever heard,” and then hand him an imaginary piece of paper. “Here it is. Why don’t you read it out loud.” Rather than stepping up to the plate, making a clear choice, and being assertive, you waffle, wimp out, and manipulate your partner into shouldering all the responsibility for moving the scene forward.

While you don’t want to hang back and never act, you also don’t want to make the other improv mistake of going in the other direction – always acting and attacking and never reacting and yielding. This is known as driving the scene, and actors who do this seem like control freaks. They think they have a great idea for the scene and push all the other actors in that direction. They dominate the action, don’t listen, do yes-buts. And while their ideas may be funny or interesting, it doesn’t work because the process ultimately undermines any possibility of success. The other actors feel dismissed and emotionally pummeled; they may go along as best they can, but don’t care, because what is happening is your idea not everyone’s. The scene quickly gets stilted, loses energy. The audience usually gets irritated or bored. It becomes for them a little bit too much like real life.

We all know in our clinical work how easily responsibility in relationships can get abandoned or distorted. Frank runs the show at home and in your office and his wife Ellen never speaks up, always goes along. Sue binge-drinks all weekend, and Eric is calling up her boss on Monday telling him that she has the flu rather than hung-over. Brian and Teresa talk about dividing up household chores more equally, but never do it and only continue to complain and complain.

Our job is counter this inertia and fear. When clients begin to withdraw, we encourage them to take risks, to act differently, right here and now, and say what’s on their minds and in their hearts. We ask the hard questions – do you think of suicide, do you want to get divorced, do you worry that this is your fault – that hopefully nudge them to talk about the underlying pain, the undisclosed secret, the unremitting terror.

And if we’re good at our job, we model this courage as well. But sometimes like improv actors, we, like our clients, wimp out. Frank really is intimidating and rather than challenging him or finding out how Ellen is feeling, we act like her and let him go on; Sue probably is alcoholic, but we’re tired and don’t really know much about addiction treatment, and rationalize to ourselves why we should just continue with our standard list of assessment questions; Brian and Teresa once again start complaining about chores, but instead of moving them towards concrete action, we instead only half-listen till they wind down, then change the topic and ask how the kids are doing. We give up out leadership, and sink into the client’s emotional climate and ways of coping, rather than changing it. It’s our anxiety, our fear. It’s our choosing to stay in our comfort zone, rather than taking the risk of busting out and seeing what happens.

“Well, you guys just caught off guard there with all your hospitality. You-ee” and she shakes her head. “ Just a little problem I’ve had since I was a little girl. I’m fine now.” Ann stands up and pulls down on the front of her imaginary suit jacket. “Well, now,” she says, regaining her saleswoman composure. “How about I show you both our new Spring line of men’s aftershaves?” Her voice is bubbly. She mimes opening a large sample case.

“Uh, I need to go to the back and check that block order,” says Brad on cue and in a shaky voice. He begins to back up.

“Hold on, Joe” I say, patting him on the back. “Don’t leave. We can do this.”

Rule #3. You can look good if you make your partner look good. One famous adage in improv is that everyone is a supporting actor. This concept follows directly from the others – acceptance, responsibility – now trust and commitment to each other. This is what makes improv relationships in some ways the perfect relationships. Rather than looking out for yourself, you’re always looking to support the other actors – to help him out, just as Ann did when Brad and I were running out of ideas – knowing that they’ll do the same for you when you start to flounder or get stuck. By my stepping up and offering something to Brad when he starts to shake, he and I have a way to discover together how his character is going to handle this aftershave fear. If he looks good, and he helps me look good, together we have successful scene. It’s the same impulse that drives the comradeship of soldiers in combat. We got each other’s back, we all pull our weight, we leave no one behind. We’re a team. What we do, we do together.

In contrast to such generosity is a stinginess and distrust that we see in many relationships. Mike and Loren are discussing what they might do together as couple over the weekend. It quickly has the feel of poker game. Mike is willing to do something on Saturday afternoon, if she will let him watch the ballgame on Sunday; Loren is willing to go for a hike if Mike promises to take the kids to soccer practice on Saturday morning. They are cutting deals, hoarding and counting some limited number of emotional chips. They each only show their hand if the other guy shows his first. They’re strategizing and posturing and bluffing rather than being honest and committed to each other as a couple. Each has learned over the years to look out for himself because they each believe their partner won’t.

As therapists we may be less likely to do this with clients, but certainly may do this with other colleagues in the field. We hold tight to our clients, we promote and posture ourselves and feel competitive towards other therapists in town, other programs like our own. In the improv world the chips aren’t limited, their infinite. We’re playing not against each other on stage or in a scene, but for each other. I give you what I most need and believe that you will give it back. I can lean into the relationship because I know and trust that you’ll catch me.

Brad is looking down, is hesitant. “Are you guys okay?” asks Ann. “Did I say something wrong.”

“No, it’s okay,” I say, holding up my hand. “Just give us a minute.”

I put my arm around Brad’s neck. “I understand that you feel responsible for dad. But you didn’t know, he didn’t know that putting on too much aftershave could trigger his heart attack.”

“But I was the one who gave him the aftershave to him for his birthday,, says Brad, now pretending to cry. “If I hadn’t given it to him, he’d still be here. It was my fault.”

“Joe, it wasn’t your fault. Don’t feel guilty,” I say quietly. (Hmmm, where is all this coming from I wondering to myself). “Remember what dad said in hospital – that men are more than big muscles and sweat. That you don’t have to smell of concrete dust all the time. He didn’t blame you. He wanted us to be like him. He always wanted us to know that it was alright to… smell good.”

Rule #4. Be truthful, be vulnerable. One of the mistakes that new improvisers make that they try hard to be funny. It never works. It feels forced, it falls flat. Instead of funny go for vulnerable. Stay in character and be honest. This is always more interesting for the audience, always moves the scene along, and more often than not, turns out funny anyhow.

We know how truthful and vulnerable applies to our work, and know how hard it is for clients and ourselves to get there. It’s another form of confronting fear, and it depends on the other rules – a acceptance, trust, responsibility, the belief that the other guy has your interests at heart. Clients often test the emotional waters by initially tossing us a low-risk problem. Sarah comes in saying that she’s struggling getting her kids in bed, Lou says he is having trouble sleeping and thinks it is work stress. After a few sessions and if we’ve helped them feel safe, Sarah mentions her childhood sexual abuse, her nightly binging behavior. Lou talks about the big argument he and his wife had over the weekend, and his nightly fantasies of walking out and leaving her and the kids behind.

And sometimes we freeze up ourselves. A client reminds us of our mother or has been referred to us by the top therapist in town, and we find ourselves stepping into our “professional” role. We try and impress – making what we think are cleaver interpretations, giving lecturettes to show how much we know – worrying about how we’re doing, rather than listening to the client. We make sure with have eye contact and work hard to look concerned, rather than relaxing and seeing what comes up inside us in the moment.

The message of this rule is honesty should always be the default. In a pinch, when you don’t know what to say, you say you don’t know what to say. You don’t hide behind pat answers, your standard role, but push yourself instead towards authenticity and immediacy. Like the other rules, you take the lead and help clients to do the same.

Brad stands up straight, wipes his eyes one last time, and pumps his arm. “You’re right,” he says “Let’s do this for dad.”

“Trish,” I say, “sorry to keep you. Let’s see what you got in that case... Oh no, bold print!”

And scene.

Rule #5. There are no mistakes. In a good improv scene everything is incorporated, nothing falls to the wayside. A character’s anger, someone’s limp, the joke that falls flat, the imaginary cup that gets dropped all get acted and reacted to. You work around and with what others offer, and trust that you’ll all somehow pull it out. All grist for the mill, you see what evolves, focus on what’s being created in the moment. Like poetry you seek to connect the odd and seemingly out of place – concrete and cosmetics, aftershave and guilt.

None of us knew where this scene was going to go when it started – that Brad and my relationship would be close rather than antagonistic, that Ann would be selling cosmetics instead of delivering sand or being a dog, that we would wind up talking about loss and grief instead of fraternity parties or ways to knock out one of the walls in the factory. And while it turned out to be a pretty strong scene, it could have fallen flat with each of us wandering around, not listening, staying safe and doing nothing interesting.

And it doesn’t matter. We were trying to remember the rules, practicing our skills, practicing ourselves, and most of all playing and having a good time. Some clients get stuck in their relationships and their lives because they worry about making mistakes or are haunted by past ones. Couples find themselves in stale marriages because choose to stay in their comfort zone, and use routine and distance to replace spontaneity and confrontation. Some clients, and undoubtedly some therapists, become preoccupied with following, what they imagine to be, the one path towards the one goal. They scold themselves when they feel they have strayed, when things don’t turn out as they imagine they should, rather than patting themselves on the back for taking the risk and learning something new about themselves and their lives.

A few years after taking up improv I quit my job; after 30 years of agency work I decided to go into private practice. I started to do workshops on family therapy and supervision, finding myself putting my improv skills to good use – spontaneously acting out the personalities of clients, complete with different voices, when presenting case examples. Having never traveled oversees before, I took myself on a 3-week trip across China. And I got married.

Diane has come to see me for therapy because her husband walked out on her after 20 years of marriage. She is trying to make sense of what happened. She sits in my office tearful as she remembers one of her last conversations with her husband before he suddenly left. She feels guilty, she says, because she was tired and irritable, and paid little attention to his rant about his boss. She now thinks that if she had listened and provided the support he was seeking, he wouldn’t have stayed so frustrated, and maybe, just maybe, not had left.

I’m about to tell her that big decisions usually don’t work that way, that it’s not one thing but an accumulation of incidents and feelings over time, but then I remember my father in the hospital. I begin to tell her how I felt when I knew he was dying, knew in my therapist head it was my last opportunity to say to him what I appreciated and loved about him, but instead I said nothing at all. He died several hours later. I feel bad, I say to her, that I never spoke up. I try to tell myself that we always do the best we can in the moment – on good days it helps, on other days it doesn’t. Diane nods her head and becomes quiet.

The core of my clinical work hasn’t changed – I still follow the same models and theories that I used to. But I’m sure a few years ago I wouldn’t have told this story to Diane, I would have instead tried to talk her away from her guilt. I am in some ways less cautious, more focused on process than content, more energetic and interactive in sessions. I try harder to listen to clients, to Diane, to understand where they are and what they offer. I do my best to act and react, and get excited about what we may just be able to create together.