A train squeals into dimly lit Derby station. Two baby-faced students drift into its congested vestibule. Crouched in a corner on my rucksack, I listen as they bemoan presentations they’re obliged to deliver tomorrow.
One must memorise and practice so he doesn’t let his tutor down. The other wants it done quickly, meaning less time for worrying. Neither wants to endure anyone else’s presentation.
I’d been expecting this.
When modern life welcomed me back into its familiar, restrained embrace. Pleasantries over, it hands you a list of shoulds and musts, demands a plan, then leaves you alone to screw over the hows and whys.
Crouched in that carriage vestibule, bearing witness to workaday woes, felt very at odds with the adventure I’ve just been on. I’ve just returned from a four day improv retreat into my imagination, emotions, and those of my fellow improv-ers.
Improv, in case you’re as new to it as I am, is unscripted, improvised performance. You just make it up as you go along – singing and acting your way through ideas as they emerge. You play with scenes, characters, objects, games and narratives.
And hosting this particular retreat were the effervescent Maydays, who make comedy improv an artform, emphasising play, fun and laughter.
In a moment of mad intuitive decision-making, I joined their retreat to broker personal peace with spontaneity and uncertainty. To let go of over-planning, preparedness, control, and that fear of being unready and making mistakes.
All big obstacles for folk like me.
So I expected the big challenge to be coping with novel, uncertain situations. I thought I’d struggle to take myself less seriously, and immerse myself in play.
That was my first inconsequential mistake
Like humanity since forever, I navigated novelty quite well, I think – imagination took care of that. And there’s relish in playing daft and making a tit out of oneself. Loved it.
No, the real blocker was those ever pesky unhelpful beliefs, and negative internal chatter.
I’m talking about the kind we accumulate memorising obligatory presentations no one really enjoys giving or hearing. By pretending to be grown-ups in everyday life. By exposing ourselves to scrutiny. By avoiding failure and mistakes. By making unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others.
Then moaning about it all on late-night train journeys through Derby.
Beliefs are like chain-link fences surrounding our ego. They keep things safe and knowable. And mine strained under the weight of my own bullshit in our very first improv exercise.
It was a circle game where fellow improv-ers played out imaginary scenes. Newcomers could freeze the action, tag in/out, then shift the scene somewhere else with new characters and action. You might remember this from drama lessons at school.
Stood at the edge of that circle on day one, I recall watching with simultaneous delight and disgust the ease with which these strangers threw themselves into it. Part of me wanted to jump in and play, unafraid and keen to make playmates. The other shook his head, tutting at ideas he deemed reductive, childish, or shallow; scared and awkward.
It was like being a grown-up standing at the entrance of a park, holding a child back because the swings look dangerous, or other kids aren’t good enough; or a thousand other flawed arguments against just, well, seeing what happens.
I am one of four mystic oracles
I vomited this at Ed, one of the Maydays. I likened it to hearing all those disapproving, judgemental, ridiculing voices at once. Bullies from childhood, parents, siblings, classmates – telling you to hold back, stay in line, to avoid risks.
Ed reassured me this was all perfectly normal apparently, when new to improv. He revealed his after kindly dropping me into a group game, live on-stage, at the first evening show of the retreat.
Here I was one of four mystic oracles who responded with wisdom, one word at a time, when posed questions by the audience.
Absurdly, for someone who loves showing off, the heat of public scrutiny felt acute, as I strode onto stage with my fellow oracles. That inner child at the park gates was grinning, playful and enraptured. Yet holding its hand firmly was that cemented adult – unwilling to sway in gay, reverential abandon like my fellow oracles.
Slowly, I began to wave my arms and surrender to the game, daring to lift my eyes beyond the floor, toying with questions from the audience and offering daft responses.
It felt excruciating at first, then gleefully inevitable.
I was having inconsequential fun. And it felt freeing.
Over the course of the retreat, I was thrown into hours of pair and group work like this. We were given scenes, props, characters, relationships and emotions to play with.
My inner child gradually led the adult. I remembered how to play.
Yet still, the judgement – “what are these dickheads doing?” it asked, “that’s so dishonest to pretend,” “how is THAT funny?”.
In a clinic with Katy, of the Maydays, I listened as she deftly shared techniques to resolve others’ improv problems I could literally only imagine, beginner as I am. At session close, I thought fuck it, she seems nice, I’ll open up about my struggle with judgement and cynicism.
Her advice was reassuring and sincere. In fact it probably applies to any situation we feel anxious or cynical about.
She said it’s about ‘over-agreeing’
In improv, we are told “yes, and…” is the motto: meet every idea with openness and enthusiasm, always wonder how you can make it even better, more fun and playful for everyone.
So to combat my demons, her suggestion was to greet someone’s ‘annoying’ hyperactive monster with the reaction “oh god I’m this monster’s superfan, can I get your autograph?!”
This made sense.
It made even more sense outside of improv
I don’t know about you but I’m uncomfortable not knowing, being on my own, and having to make fast friendships. Well, as a newcomer to a retreat like this, I had no choice but to agree my way through.
In crowds like this, my inner stroppy teenager (yes, another character) wants to cross its arms, snort and judge people from the sidelines. “Look at how quickly they make friends, it’s so disingenuous, why are they so over-the-top with each other?”
That part wanted me to believe everyone else was the problem, when really – I was the odd one out here. I came to the realisation that outsiderness was my own construct. It was a subliminal choice.
So began my journey with over-agreeing. By observing the warmth and innocence amongst fellow improv-ers. I tried to meet it with curiosity and my own (for now, understated) version of agreement.
I decided to be an improv-er
It all came together one evening in a conversation with fellow improv-er, Gareth. I asked him what it was that made a community like this. He was well-refreshed at the time, yet strung together the most useful and eloquent summation of improv-types (at least at that retreat).
He said what united people like this (us?) was a love of attention, yet not too much, a love of games and world-building escapism. Many had experience of bullying, feeling left out, or other cruel hands life can deal you.
He said it attracted gamers, coders, dancers, and people with self-confessed ‘boring’ jobs. I’d noticed that too – how many people improv-ed to escape the everyday workaday, looking for a safe place to play, free from judgement and obligation, perhaps.
But the kindest observation was that at heart improv is optimistic and hospitable. People who love improv love making friends and playing.
What a place to be a vulnerable newcomer!
Could it be that I’d not only found a way of life I’m drawn to, but a tribe too? One to grow amongst.
I’ve always, somewhat arrogantly, regarded myself as a bit alternative in terms like these; a bit nerdy and escapist, a sometime victim of convention. Certainly not ‘mainstream’.
Yet here I was bringing all my accumulated mainstream baggage and judgemental persecution with me into the retreat, killing my own buzz.
And in doing that I was practically defining the role of conformist!
So here was the real obstacle to improv.
Not technique – that could be learned.
Play? Well, I suspect that’s innate. I melted into scenes like the best of them.
Mistakes? Too late, the game has already moved on.
No, it was self-editing and self-consciousness.
Which led to yet another lightbulb moment
I later attended a session on supporting other humans in improv. It wasn’t my first choice – I just picked from whatever workshops were left.
Heck, this improv. Let’s go…
During that session we explored our improv preferences. Some liked objects, others liked slow and calm. Mine was surrealism. Cue a library scene in which fellow improv-er Wanda created conditions where I inadvertently kink-shamed a snail via bad translation.
Only later did the lesson become clear, when she pointed out what worked. She’d created the scene for me, out of kindness.
That was Wanda’s gift.
More walls came tumbling down
Play is generosity. Play is altruism. Saying yes, and over-agreeing. It’s all just making hospitable games where we can all have a nice time together.
At some point, probably in growing-up and taking responsibility for everything, I forgot that that was so important.
Yet lurking beneath all the trappings of adulthood – there it still was. The need for kindness and the ability to be kind in play.
And without realising it, I’d been doing it for others myself on this retreat, every time I threw them a line, or let imagination lead us both.
Reciprocal kindness at play was how my judgement quietened
Suffice to say it precipitated my natural transition into alien snuffle hog on heat, singing “I’m dead inside” with a choir, and smearing blancmanage on a trio of lusty uncles.
One particularly fond memory of the retreat is yelling “shit and pointless! Shit and pointless!” with fellow spoof-businesspeople, after we’d each delivered boardroom presentations we’d never seen before. My alter ego? Nigel Chiswick, sycophant, golf prat and shallow materialist.
In short, things got better when I embraced discomfort – contradicting and surprising myself.
The cynicism and judgement didn’t stop, I just paid it less mind. I made other people my focus, did right by them and me – genuinely wanting what felt best for us in the moment.
Perversely, a workshop of ‘starting with yourself’ helped with that.
To improv well, apparently one can look inside for inspiration; at what empathy is telling you, or what feels intuitively interesting. That’s as opposed to trying to be funny, clever or original.
It’s nice when you get a laugh, but it’s even nicer when others come along with you.
I got way more than I bargained for on this improv retreat
I discovered, or rediscovered, that like most challenges, we already have much of what we need inside us. That often in life, the thing you think will be the thing, isn’t the thing. The thing is something quite different, or could never have predicted. You can hear more about that on my audio blog podcast.
And I’ve also found a new hobby that isn’t one
Improv is a way of life, or at least one that (im)perfectly fits where I’m going. Ironically it couldn’t be any more like the way I already (hope) I coach – with curiosity, playfulness and compassion. In fact, what rescued me several times on this retreat was ‘what would a decent coach do?’.
Now I’m thinking up new ways to bring the improv ethos into coaching sessions with clients. And how I might draw on those wrestles with self-censorship into my coaching practice.
And like every decent coach, I’m asking new questions.
Like how can I live a life more improv? Where can I practice with (and be kind to) others? What vibes do I give off, in play, in work? And how can I over-agree more?
An unexpected passenger
As our train rattled northwards out of Derby station, I felt a foreboding sense of resignation.
Reality had pierced my improv bubble.
I’d expected this – being back amongst people who, like me, bought the bullshit. People prone to preparing, stressing and struggling.
Then an unexpected passenger hopped on at Sheffield.
She swanned into our crowded vestibule, joking about the Covid-19 super-spreader event it clearly was.
Suddenly, another passenger piped up: “Just so everyone knows: I’ve got a delta variant”.
And before my ego could intervene, I was in on the vibe: “Ace! Can I have one please? I’m collecting it.”
Surreal. Inappropriate. But I suspect that’s how I like my improv.
And this retreat gave me permission to begin exploring that. Judging by the sheer diversity of people in attendance, it seems that playful resourcefulness in the face of what’s unknowable, the kind I was initially looking for, is innate.
It’s already there within us.
And the situations to be more improv are all around us; in our jobs, homes and late-night trains from Derby.
Just gotta push through those filters, play like mistakes don’t matter, and help other people along in the game.
Do you (over-)agree?