Driving While Improvising
In Los Angeles, peoples’ brains are filled with references to cars and driving. A difficult situation is described “like living in L.A. without a car.” Party conversations begin with how you got to the party: “I took the 405 to the 10 to the 110” or “I took the 10 to the 5 to the 2 then the 118 to the 405.” One year, during T.V. “pilot season”, I sat at lunch with Del Close, who was in L.A. hoping to score a role in a series. Del lamented the difficulties of getting from audition to audition without a car: “I used up ten years of favors in three weeks!”
In an improv class the other day, I used Viola Spolin’s “Seeing Without Labeling” game as a warm-up. It goes like this: players move around the stage, are side-coached to stop, see any familiar object – a chair, clock on the wall, stage curtain – without automatically silently naming it. For just a moment you are “seeing without labeling.” I described it as a simple practice for coming to situations with an open mind, ready to view things from a fresh perspective, rather than being stuck, to quote Del again, with “your head up your head.” One student instinctively felt the game’s value, but needed more explanation.
Because it was important, and I wanted him to understand, I spoke to him in “Angelino” – I hit him with a driving metaphor. When you’re driving from your house to the theatre I said, you know the route and follow that route the same way every day. But what you don’t know is what might transpire along the way. There might be a crazy driver in the next lane, a new pothole in the street, an old sofa on the freeway. You follow the same route, but keep an open mind, free of preconceptions. And with the route as your structure, you improvise your way through the “game” of getting to class without getting killed. Put in those terms, my student got it.
One of my favorite venues in Los Angeles to watch people improvise is in the heart of residential Beverly Hills, just off Sunset Boulevard, where Beverly Drive, Canon Drive, and Lomitas Avenue intersect. These three streets form six spokes of a wheel. There are only stop signs. No lights! Everyone must work together. No matter whether you drive a Mercedes, Honda Civic or Lamborghini, there is that sense of playing at the top of your intelligence and a universal recognition of the value of the “yes, and…“ Heads of studios, nannies, sheiks, plastic surgeons and gardeners come to the intersection where they have to let go of preconceptions and status games about who goes first. If everyone pays attention, becomes a player in “the group mind”, then everyone gets through the intersection safely. 24/7, it’s an improv moment at its highest level – simple, honest, and high stakes. You come to the intersection in Beverly Hills without labels, or else! Seen as an improv, that intersection gives new meaning to the phrase – Funny or Die!
The ability to see without labeling is what driving, life in L.A. (and everywhere else), and improv is all about.