Thursday, September 24, 2009

Do you do life by the book or improv?

Note: Since I often write about books I am reading but do not specifically review them, I am starting a new topic called Book Club. And sorry no photo today.

Improv Wisdom (book), Patricia Ryan Madson, (2005 Bell Tower)

Why would a non-theater person read a book about improvisation? Because it isn’t only in the theater that improvisation takes place or serves a purpose. But the reason I read Madson’s book had nothing to do with the title, which in truth scared me half to death that she might suggest something I could not agree to try on principle, and had everything to do with her personal story posted on Allan Bacon’s site

Madson says says she was on the mainline to tenure when she was informed she wasn’t selected. She says she used to “color neatly inside the lines” and not being selected served as her wake up call that the script wasn’t a life. An acting professor with experience on the stage she started studying and applying the principles of improvisation in every part of her life. In other words she says she "started coloring outside the lines." Through her classes and workshops she encourages her students to do the same.

The ways she describes the elements that allow improvisation theater to work – faith, trust, being present, giving, contributing, showing up, jumping in, risking mistakes, having fun, and others – are applicable to creating a life and building relationships. Her most important lesson, not that any are unimportant, is in her words to “say, yes.” Until a person says “yes, I am” or “yes, I will” or “yes I do” it’s all theory and according to Madson the average person is far more studied at saying no to the new than saying yes.

I have been an improviser all my life. Improvising goes hand-in-hand with an unconventional life. For me though, improvising took on the more pragmatic labels of “make do” or “use what you have.” When you don’t get or have much but you still have to get stuff done, you improvise. Madson, however, is not referring to substituting this for that but rather how to let go of the life script, and the quest for the perfect building blocks, and instead start building a life and career and relationships from the raw materials that show up in everyday life.

I don’t know why Madson’s suggestions both intrigue and frighten me. Maybe it’s the uncertainty or the risk of failing; or maybe it’s the possibility that they work but conventional wisdom says they’re not supposed to. Madson believes that being chained to a properly scripted life plan full of the things we’re supposed to be, and have, and do in order to illustrate our success or our devotion can limit our experiences and our growth and the people we can reach out and help to achieve their dreams.

I have finished reading her tight little volume and have started working through the “try this” sections in each chapter. This week I’m working on the first maxim “say yes.” I realize that saying yes to everything is not possible. However I have started asking why I say no to some things when doing them would seem support building my writing career. I told you this was scary stuff.

The only reason I could come up with for saying no was that I would have to write and risk being a total flop at it. The problem with that is if I am a flop at the one thing I have wanted to do all my life, which is to write and tell people’s stories, what do I have left? Madson suggests that successful improvisation theater is the result of the elements coming – location, actors, story, audience – together in the right mix. So maybe my writing won’t be a flop but it might be in the wrong platform or niche or target audience or format and can’t be seen in its best light. And that is an optimistic proposal worthy of exploring.

So, are you an improviser; or are you chained to a script you sense is no longer serving you and your role in the world well?

Note: Allan Bacon wrote the winning essay Moving to Paris at the Art of Nonconformity site hosted by Chris Guillebeau which is where I found him.


Melissa Donovan said...

I think what's frightening about improvisation is that it involves risk and trust, two things that don't come easily to many people, especially as we get older.

"Improvising goes hand-in-hand with an unconventional life."

I couldn't agree more!

Patricia Ryan Madson said...

Very few things in life please a writer more than to learn that her words seem to have "hit the mark" with a reader. THANK YOU so much for writing about Improv Wisdom and kindly offering your impressions to your readers. This is how a book moves through the world, with help such as you have given. I do think that improvising a life can have its frightening moments. I love it that you are trying the "try this" exercises. You really did make my day.
Warm hugs from California. Keep on improvising your life.
Patricia Ryan Madson

Deb said...

@Melissa - One of Madson's own points about the difficulty of letting go and saying yes was that we get comfortable with the predictable.

@Patricia Ryan Madson - Thank you so much for visiting and your generous comments. You made my day, truly. I hope I accurately reflected your intended meanings.