Tag Archives: honesty

True Story: Is there any such thing?

Every month at Open Source, we invite any improvisers to join our troupes in a form we call True Story.* A monologist tells us a few stories from his or her own life, and the players use those stories as the springboard for scenes and games. It’s important for the monologist’s stories to be short, detailed, and honest. But is it important for them to be true? That depends on what we mean by “true.”

A book club I’m in** just finished reading The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti. (This choice may or may not have been primarily an excuse to eat good cheese while we met.)

The book is nonfiction, but the main subject, a cheese maker named Ambrosio, is an unreliable narrator. He is a wonderful storyteller, though, and Paterniti finds himself not even wanting to know how much of the stories is factual. He wants to believe everything Ambrosio says, but Ambrosio’s story is at odds with other witnesses’ more prosaic memories. Paterniti writes:

In the end, it wasn’t so much that there was an alternative narrative–there always was–but it came down to belief: Which one did you want to believe. Which one suited you best? Or, perhaps more to the point: Which one told the story you were already telling yourself?

Our book group discussed the ways we tell the truth, or don’t. My view: We all embellish or edit the facts when we tell each other stories, based on what we think our friends will find interesting. And the way we tell the story becomes the way we remember the story, and so that version becomes the truth, as far as we remember it. I don’t think that’s deception; it’s just how memories work.

In the video above, Hank Green makes these points that are bad news for eyewitness testimonies but freeing for improvisational storytellers:

  • “Our memories are not like books in the library of our mind. You don’t just pluck a neatly packaged memory right off the shelf. …Instead, your memories are more like spiderwebs in the dank catacombs of your mind, a series of interconnected associations that link all sorts of diverse things as bits of information get stuck to other bits of information.”
  • “There’s a lot of reconstruction and inferring involved when you try to flesh out a memory, and every time you replay it in your mind or relate it to a friend, it changes, just a little. So, in a way, we’re all sort of perpetually rewriting our pasts.
  • “Memory is both a reconstruction and a reproduction of past events. We can’t be sure if a memory is real just because it feels real.
  • We’re all largely the product of the stories that we tell ourselves.

My take away for improvisers is that this means we can relax. Our memories will not be perfect. That’s ok. We’re not here to testify on a witness stand. We’re here to tell good stories.

When I’m teaching how to do a monologue, my favorite questions to ask the players are:

  • How did you get your name?
  • Can you tell me about when you were born?

I took that second question from Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. She writes:

All children mythologise their birth. It is a universal trait. You want to know someone? Heart, mind and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won’t be the truth: it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story.

That’s what makes questions about names and birth such good monologue starting points. The monologist has no first hand memory of the events, so there’s no temptation to get hung up on the facts. All she has to go on are her memories of other people’s memories. I get some of the best stories out of players this way.

So if by true you mean factually accurate, that’s not interesting to me. I don’t care about that. But if by true you mean honest, then yes. These stories are true.

 

*True Story is our take on a Monologue Deconstruction. The most well known monologue deconstruction form is The Armando Diaz Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny, which plays every Monday night at iO.

**I can’t say “my book club” or “the book club I go to,” because I have suddenly found myself a member of two or three. How does that happen? It’s a good problem.

Your body trusts your brain. Even if your brain is wrong.

A paraphrase of something one of my physical theater teachers said today, as best as I can remember it:

Your body trusts your brain completely. This is why, if you’re in bed at night and you start thinking about something scary, your heart beats faster. Even if that scary thing is only a lie in your brain, not a fact in the real world. Your body can’t tell the difference between truth and lies.

Basically: If you think you’re no good, your brain tells your body that, and your body closes up a little. Then your brain gets the message that your body has closed up a little and thinks, “This is PROOF that I am no good!” and then your body closes up as a matter of course.

This is why, as Paola and physical therapists and even my pastor’s wife have all told me, your history is written on your body. Your body remembers your physical injuries, yes, but it also remembers your hurt feelings and disappointments and anger and grief.

In this fabulous TED talk that you should watch in its entirety,* Harvard professor Amy Cuddy shares her research on the effect of “power posing” not only on how people are perceived but also on their testosterone and cortisol levels. (Basically, standing like Wonder Woman for two minutes at a time chemically raises your confidence and lowers your stress.) She argues that when you “fake it till you make it” you actually fake it till you become it.

Cuddy says this:

It’s not about the content of the speech. It’s about the presence that they’re bringing to the speech. … They bring their ideas, but as themselves, with no residue over them.

So your thought patterns shape your body language, your body language affects your hormones, your hormones impact your emotions, and your emotions feed into your thought patterns. It’s an endless body-to-thoughts-to-body feedback loop.

The goal of the class is not therapy. Paola has made it clear that she has no interest in how we’re doing emotionally in the outside world. But to be a strong performer, you must have confidence and presence. Our goal is to work out the places in our bodies that hold tension; it’s a constant fight to stay alive in neutral, to get rid of that distracting residue Cuddy talks about.

I’m not sure if it matters where in the loop you start, but for me, it’s easiest to start with my body. If I start with my thoughts, I’m stuck; I’m too good at talking myself out of things. If I start with my body, with things my instructors can see, then they can help. My brain isn’t trustworthy enough on its own.

 

*Watching this video has my husband “power posing” at random in our apartment. It is the best.

How to Spot a Healthy Improv Troupe

Maybe your dream troupe is patient and grounded, or maybe it’s stylized and off-the-wall. Maybe it’s short form, maybe it’s long form. Maybe it’s a dozen people, maybe it’s just you and one other player.

Regardless, you want to be in a healthy troupe. Not just a funny troupe or an impressive troupe, but a healthy troupe. If you’re not healthy, it doesn’t matter how charismatic or witty or patient you are; things will get miserable.

What does healthy look like? In my experience, a healthy troupe is characterized by:

  • Eagerness — The players are eager to try anything, eager to learn from critique and experience, and eager to support others.
  • Honesty — The players are open and honest, both on stage and off. On stage, honesty often begets comedy. Off stage, honesty begets solid relationships — which, in turn, creates good comedy. As conflict arises, players talk about it in person rather than gossiping or shelving.
  • Showmanship — While practicing improv can be therapeutic, it is not therapy; it is preparation for a performance. Players work on technique to improve their shows and care for their audience.

This is the kind of troupe I want to coach.

It’s the kind of troupe I want to play with.

So I guess it’s the kind of player I ought to be.

Playing with an open heart.

Meet Jet Eveleth, one of my favorite improv teachers in the world. In her words, this is what it takes to be a good team:

A key here is shared goals. A troupe that lasts is a troupe that is making progress together toward an agreed-upon end. And — guess what! — the same goes for church congregations.

Not long ago, I took a workshop with Jet called “Loving the Harold,” which emphasized quirky organic games and grounded scenes. At the end of the three weeks, one classmate spoke up, “Ok, so now I love the Harold. I love this kind of Harold. But I’m afraid if I start playing like this with my team, they’ll eat me alive.

Jet said something like:

They very well might eat you alive. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Start daydreaming about your perfect team. How would they treat you? How would you play with them? Go ahead and start playing like that now. And expect to get your heart broken.

Some people find their soul mate early on, but some people have to go through relationship after relationship before something clicks. If you were vulnerable and open and you got broken up with anyway, you still have to pick yourself back up and be vulnerable and open again. Don’t be so busy protecting yourself from being hurt that your soul mate can’t recognize you.

You have to keep playing the way you want to play deep inside, and you have to let yourself be seen. You have to believe that there are people out there who want to play with someone like you, but they will never find you if you’re not playing with an open heart.

So I started daydreaming about the kind of troupe I wanted.

I like watching witty, stylized shows, (like Whirled News and Improvised Shakespeare). When I have friends in from out of town, that’s often what I take them to see.

I like watching mind-spinningly fast, aggressive improv (like Deep Schwa and Beer Shark Mice). I find it impressive, because that’s not how my brain works.

I could stand to develop more in all of those areas, and maybe the best way for me to do that would be to jump into teams who have those shared goals. Ultimately, though, I have not been happy on teams like that. I like seeing their shows, not playing in them.

My favorite way to play is patient and relational, maybe with some big group non-scenes to shake things up. I thoroughly enjoy Whirled News and Deep Schwa, but TJ and Dave and The Reckoning melt my nerdy little improv heart.

I want to play like the work is important, like I have all the time in the world, like my partners are poets, and like human beings are inherently amazing.

Not everyone wants to play like that. That’s ok. It doesn’t mean they’re bad guys. It just means they have certain goals, and their goals aren’t the same as mine.

This whole idea resonates with my own experience with different churches and denominations.

I didn’t fit in with Southern Baptist churches in my hometown. And, because my hometown was almost entirely Southern Baptist, I thought that meant I didn’t fit in with any church anywhere. I would have to be a rogue, church-less Christian. Love Jesus, hate religion. That sort of thing.*

(For the record, that works just about as well as a being a rogue, troupe-less improviser. Sure, I can say I’ll work on a coach-less solo project, but I can only get so far without critique from veterans and support from other players who are growing along with me. It might be necessary to go solo for a season, but it’s not a long-term solution.)

Am I saying that Southern Baptist churches are bad? No. I’m just not cut out to be a Southern Baptist anymore than I’m cut out to be a ComedySportz regular.

After some trial and error, I discovered I’m most free to be myself in an Anglican church. I need the structure, the liturgy, the sacraments. I need the arts in worship and the theology classes. It’s where I belong.

But it was four years between the time I realized that and the time I let myself use my gifts and make my friends in the congregation. If I had risked being open earlier, it wouldn’t have taken me that long. I missed out on four years of using my gifts for the church and letting the church serve me in turn because I wasn’t willing to risk coming to church with an open heart.

*And by “thing,” I might possibly mean heresy. Maybe. If, by “religion,” you mean “hypocrisy,” I’m totally with you, but please say what you mean.

Give it all, give it now.

“Spend it all. Shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place…give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things will fill from behind, from beneath, like water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I was reminded of this Annie Dillard quote by Laura Turner’s guest post at Rachel Held Evans‘ blog this week. Turner writes, “Where am I giving from, and what am I holding back? Am I giving from abundance? And if so, why I am I holding on to so much when I know that everything I hold back from God is exactly what separates me from him?”

I would add that everything I hold back separates me from other people, too. And this is a problem if I want to do improv.*

If I find myself holding back my ideas and my impulses — which are all I have to offer on stage — I won’t connect well with my scene partner, and then the audience won’t connect with our scene. We won’t stumble into truth or comedy if we can’t connect, and we can’t connect if we’re not willing to give generously of ourselves.

I go through phases of having trouble giving of my ideas. “My ideas aren’t good enough” is one reason; “My ideas are AWESOME and I’m saving them for myself” is another. Both of these attitudes are selfish. The first masquerades as humility, but it’s actually selfishness and fear.

When I first started learning improv, I would try and come up with good ideas to use at my next practice. And sometimes, during practice, I’d come up with a Really Good Idea. A Hilarious Idea. An Artful Idea. But I wouldn’t play it right away. I’d want to save it for a show. No sense wasting it in practice, right?

Ironically, when I did use these good ideas in practice, the scenes turned out to be flat and uninteresting. And those good ideas I had on the sidelines to save up for a show? I don’t remember actually using any of them. They were ideas that made sense in the moment, but not outside of it. They absolutely turned to ash.

Preparing characters and situations before practice is not actually improvisation; it’s writing. Writing is wonderful and valuable, but it’s a different pursuit altogether. Improv really is best when it’s improvised.**

Those impulses you have on the sidelines? The ones in your gut? Go with them. Right now. Don’t judge them. Don’t save them for later. Don’t hold them back out of politeness. Don’t be polite at all; be generous. The most generous thing you can possibly do is throw your idea out there for the group to play with.

Maybe the idea won’t play the way you thought it would when it occurred to you. Maybe it morphs into something else. That’s ok. If you’re on stage, the idea has already served its purpose. The only time an idea has any value is if you let it move you from the sidelines to the stage. 

Once you’re on stage, it’s not your idea anymore, anyway. It belongs to the group. That means it’s not up to you to make it come out ok. You can relax.

Remember that attitude of thankfulness exemplified in Red Ball? Generosity is born out of that. If you feel like you can’t afford to give your ideas and go with your impulses, ask yourself if you’re thankful. Everything is a gift you can be specifically thankful for.

thankfulness –> generosity –> connection –> truth/comedy

*It’s also a problem if I want to live life in the Church. Or even if I just want to be, you know, a human being who has friends.
**Duh.