by Edward Trout
Artistic Director of CSz Indianapolis
When performing for an audience, improvisers are working without a script, sometimes without any form of structure at all. In essence, every other performer is part of your script. Even the audience members become part of your script, both through suggestions and reactions to the creativity that spews forth. If you realize an audience is responding to something, you want to give them more of that to engage them. If you realize that they are offended or bored, you want to find other ways to engage them. Being aware, awake, and alive in that moment is so incredibly important.
Obviously, in day to day life, we are not handed scripts when we climb out of bed in the morning. We get up and start reacting to the stimuli in our lives in order to get through a day. Then that day becomes a week, a month, a life. How much of our lives do we end up sleepwalking through? It is so easy to ignore the world around us. In fact, modern technology makes it almost impossible not to do so at times.
How many times have you been in a conversation and a phone rings or vibrates? For that split second, even if you don’t answer it or look at it, your mind is pulled somewhere else. And how many times have you actually looked at the phone immediately afterwards, despite the fact that a physically present human being is standing in front of you talking. It can be a very hard thing to resist.
So, as an improviser, I have found a few approaches that you can use in order to help focus yourself in the here and now. Here are the top five:
Use Active Listening: When someone is talking to you, you probably look at them and keep your ears tuned in to them. But do you actually LISTEN to them? Active listening means that, instead of getting lost in what you want your response to be even before they are done talking, you truly invest in what they are saying to you. We spend a lot of our time in conversations preparing our response. We sometimes even believe our response is so urgent or so important that we will cut off the other person just to get our reply in a few seconds earlier. Next time be sure to look, listen, and smile, while letting them talk while you listen.
Listen for the Underlying Content: One thing that also helps keep us present is to listen to not only the details, but to WHY it was important enough for them to even be talking about it in the first place. Was it a complaint? We make a lot of complaints every day. So rather than listen to what happened, try to listen to WHY it bothered them. What principle do they hold that was violated enough for them to have an emotional reaction? And the same is true when they are happy about something. It’s not the thing they are happy about, but why they are so happy about it that is most telling.
Make Eye Contact: We sometimes have trouble connecting with each other. Eye contact lets someone know that you see them. It connects directly to them. For some people, this can be uncomfortable. In fact, for some people it can even feel like a threat to have you look so directly into their eyes unless you are already engaging them in a positive way. And please understand, I am not saying that you should stare someone down. That is almost always uncomfortable for one or both parties. But you can look at someone directly, even if you don’t hold their gaze for long. If you don’t ever look them in the eye, the sense of being disconnected is apparent.
Breathe: Sometimes, we get a chattering monkey-mind that will get in the way of our own calmer thoughts, let alone get in the way of listening appropriately. A deep breath can help focus you back to the center of your being. It is a simple act, but it takes your conscious attention off of your internal chatter, and puts it in your body, with a side benefit of increasing oxygen flow to your brain as well.
Remember That It’s Not about You: At least most of the time, it is not about you. As improvisers, a big part of our job is to not only contribute to what is going on, but to ALSO make our fellow performers look good. That means that we have to be tuned-in to what they are thinking and what they are doing. Keeping that focus on the “Us” over the “Me” will help you me shift from an internal monologue simply waiting for a turn to speak, to trying to be more of a sponge, working to absorb what others are bringing to the table, and looking for a way to support, elevate, and advance those ideas.
Of course, even with these daily reminders, it is still possible to miss something, or let a response form and cut off someone else, even when working not to do so. Attention to these things doesn’t make one perfect. But life is improv, and like all improv, as long as your “mistake” becomes something you can learn from or build on, then it wasn’t really a mistake. It was only an opportunity.
BE HERE NOW:
Live in the Moment. Pay attention. Listen, watch, and remember. Be patient. Observe. Discern order. Be silent. Remember. Place positive focus on what others are saying and doing. Look for patterns within the world around you and within your life.