“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.