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Living Life In The Improv Zone

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Skim through any adult education bulletin and you will see every kind of subject imaginable with a couple exceptions. It is next to impossible to find a listing for a course in Improvisation. This is not a big surprise. Unless you are an actor, you probably would flee from a class where you are in the spotlight without a clue of what will be happening or how you are supposed to respond.

From the moment we were ejected from that cozy womb, we were thrown into the unknown and expected to find our way. It is still true today. We never know what will happen in the next moment. Each day calls on our abilities to improvise even though we probably don’t think of it that way. Our flexibility, creativity and resilience will determine the quality of our responses and our lives. 

You have heard it said many times on the news that none of us have gone through anything like this present Pandemic. Some of you are, at the same time, grieving the loss of a beloved partner. It is understandable if you feel unprepared mentally and emotionally — in every way. In reality, you are probably more prepared to cope with what you are facing than you believe. Most of us have lived through childhood traumas, moves, job upheaval, family crisis, wars, illness and loss. That is the stuff of our lives and tragedy is often a pathway to growth whether we desire that path or not.

The rules that apply to improvisation in the world of theater can help us right now to mobilize our resources to deal with the present challenges of not only huge life crises but also the ordinary stuff of our lives. Here are a few improvisation principles that can have a very positive impact on our lives.

You Are Part Of A Group

It is easy to feel alone especially during times of crisis but you are part of some group, probably several groups — including your family, religious congregation, community, city, state, the world. Some of you going through the loss of a partner had the wisdom to join a grief support group such as Hope Connection where you can benefit from the impact of your role as a group member with others who relate and understand.

Your actions not only affect you but ripple out and touch many lives. If you make choices based on group needs, not just your own, your life will be more meaningful. If you collaborate and care about the welfare of others, you will feel a human connection and be more aware of your own worth. For example, if you recycle, you will know that you are helping the planet to survive. If you wear a mask during a pandemic, you are keeping yourself and others from the spread of illness. When you are in a support group and listen deeply, your caring has impact on both you and your group members.

Yes… And

Saying yes to each moment means you accept what is happening right now whether you like, approve or desire that reality. By accepting the present you have taken the first step toward dealing with the life challenges that need your energy at this time of your life. Yes is the acceptance of the present; and is your spontaneity and flexibility as well as your humanity that leads to the choices to enable you to thrive. Between the acceptance of a situation and the actions you take are often deep feelings about the here and now — grief, fear, anger —that come before the and of doing something.

In a stage improvisation without a script, actions must come quickly. Here is a typical theater improvisation example: Joanna, a female actor sees Tyler, a handsome guy enter the stage. Joanna is hoping for a romantic scene when Tyler embraces her and says, “Hi Mom, I’m home.” Joanna must immediately give up her romantic visions and respond as Mom. The “yes” is her acceptance that she is Mom in the scene. The “and” will be the myriad choices she can make in her Mom role.

Our lives are constantly filled with big and little “surprises” that feel like shock waves, unsettling our sense of trust in the predictability of life.

Poor Choices Will Happen — And That Can Be A Gift

Have you ever made a choice that you regretted whether it be a small act or something very big and important. Due to the imperfection of the human condition, you probably have and in response may have berated, insulted or in some way emotionally attacked your vulnerable self. You probably knew that the negative self-talk was undeserved and not at all helpful — an automatic response that can wound your spirit. 

Now let’s go back to the theater: You are watching a scene from an improv troupe and they are quite magical although you are aware that not every choice made by each cast member is brilliant. Yet you give those actors on stage lots of slack because it is so amazing that they are out there without a script, flying without a net!

Be kind to yourself, give yourself some slack when you feel you have made poor choices. You, too, are without a script directing you how to respond. View each less-than-stellar choice you make as a gift, a lesson on what serves you well and what does not.

Inner growth and wisdom comes from embracing the lessons of our mistakes. Like flowers in a garden, we grow into full bloom with loving attention.

Think Outside The Box And Leave Your Comfort Zone

One of the remarkable aspects of life in a pandemic is to witness the creativity of so many people. We are seeing yard signs and car parades to celebrate special events. Non-cooks are becoming super home chefs. Lawn chair gardeners are taking up landscaping. We connect on Zoom so we are not isolated. Creativity is the norm. Even people deep in grief are signing up to learn a new language, visit a museum online, learn a musical instrument, get a pet. The examples of our ingenuity in the face of crisis are endless.

If you are dealing with the death of a loved one, everything about your life may feel way out of your comfort zone. This is your time to be brave and compassionate.

When you don’t let fear of the unknown paralyze you, then you can find your resilience and uncover strengths that are already part of who you are but may be hidden.

Going beyond familiar ways means letting go of perfectionism and just riding the wind, trusting in your spontaneity and even finding pleasure in newfound creativity.

It takes courage to make new responses and feel uncomfortable as you take that first baby step forward.

If you venture out into new territory you will come in contact with deep parts of yourself that will amaze and inspire you.

These are just a few of the “rules” of improvisation that can guide us especially when life seems to be an episode of The Twilight Zone.

This rap poem is a tribute to our unpredictable lives and how we cope, often beyond our wildest expectations.

Life Is An Improv
From birth to the very end
Life is one big unknown my friend
You think you are in control
You think you are on a roll
But all you do is guess 
and often make a mess
Life is not yours to know
Not yours to control
Life is an improv
Get used to that fact
Not knowing keeps you intact
Stay in flow with “I don’t know”
Loosen up and be in Zen
Not caring where or when
Your neat world is in a state of upend
Time to step out of the box
How dull is cream cheese and lox
Make new choices that are fresh and bold
Act young even when you feel old
Don’t worry if you make a mistake
Being in motion is no piece of cake
Take time to listen not just talk
To hear the other and join their walk
You must be in the now 
even if you don’t know how
Life in your head keeps you stuck in bed
You need brain and bod to feel alive
To make the choices that help you thrive
Sometimes your world will fall apart 
Strip you naked and tear your heart
All you have to keep you going 
is the courage, the knowing 
That you will grab the now with heart and soul
If you fall apart, you’ll emerge whole
Don’t jump ahead into the unknown
Stay with this moment, it is your home.
Plan to survive what comes to you
Life is improv and you know that’s true.

By Lynne Goldklang, MFT