Improv and Inspiration
I had a little down time during the holidays to do some reading: Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From”, “Bob Dylan In America”, “Will in the World” (Will Shakespeare, that is), and Jay-Z’s “Decoded.” The last three on the list described artists who were, as Sean Wilentz put it in the Dylan book, “open to artistic inspiration anywhere [they] found it.”
Recently, one of my students, determined to grow as an improviser, asked if a deeper reference level makes a big different in the work. Answer: It’s absolutely crucial. The amazing Severn Darden from the early days of Second City in his “Metaphysics Lecture”, answered in great depth (and hilariously) the question “What is Everything… anyway?” At The Committee, I always marveled at Garry Goodrow taking a suggestion for a first line and a style for a poem and then improvising one that could have been written by E.E. Cummings, Walt Whitman, Edna St. Vincent Millay — whoever, he had it dead on! In the last couple years, I’ve seen some long form improv done with intelligence and humanity. To name one example, L.A. based improv team Dasariski, on the day the IPad went on sale, performed a very hip social satire long form improv on the need to have the newest of everything.
To be a really good improviser you need to be open to artistic inspiration anywhere you find it. The more places you explore, the deeper and broader your frame of reference, the better you will be. My early days learning improv were spent pretty much in equal parts work shopping with Del Close and book shopping in City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco with Del, who recommended books, the knowledge from which showed up later and some time as much a surprise to me as anyone, in the work on stage. More recently, my perspective was profoundly changed, my reference level deepened and informed by my experience leading improv comedy workshops in Rwanda with young post-genocide Rwandans. That experience was the inspiration for Laughter for a Change.
The value of our improv outreach at Laughter for a Change is not just for the people who we bring laughter to. The “take away” for us is a deep and broad expansion in our reference levels. Each of the talented Comedy Mentors who lead improv workshops with PTSD vets, or former gang members, or culturally mixed and at-risk middle school students, or seniors dealing with how to stay ahead of the aging process (news flash — laughter helps!) are informed and affected for the good as improvisers as well as people.
So, one recipe for becoming a better improviser, guaranteed: read everything, talk to people, have deep conversations, open yourself up to opportunities to be influenced by diverse opinions and communities. Don’t just think outside the box, get up off your ass and get outside the box!