I had a bit of a personal epiphany recently. As tends to be the case, it came as a burst, explaining a deep flaw in my lifelong thinking. One that sets me up for all kinds of stress.
It happened while I was listening to an interview with Cheryl Hines who, among other things, played Larry David’s wife in the show Curb Your Enthusiasm.
If you don’t know the show, let’s just say it’s super funny to people like me…which might just be because it has a bit of a reputation.
The show isn’t scripted. Instead, writers provide an outline to the actors, who must then improvise their way through it, creating and making up the scene as they go along.
When Cheryl Hines was asked if this made her uncomfortable she gave a resounding and quite respectable no. After all, she’d been doing improv forever.
She did say, however, that most of the guest stars were just the opposite – completely uncomfortable, often freaked out by having to improvise their scenes.
Because there wasn’t a script.
And that’s when it hit me. A big reason why I can get thrown out of whack every now and again. (And again.)
My whole life, I’ve been treating each day like it had a script. And that’s not how it works.
Because life is improv.
Stay with me and think about it.
So many of us go through life trying to control not just the set-up of each day, but how each day will specifically proceed. We imagine how things will go down exactly, the conversations we will have, the things we will get done, the things that will come up.
And then, when all kinds of unexpected things come at us, when things don’t go as we imagined, we get thrown off. Stressed out.
And, in the case of some of us, we try even harder to do what we can to control-control-control.
“Ha!” says life. “Not a chance.”
Need to be convinced this whole script idea is wrong? Consider the improv model as described by Cheryl Hines and others:
- There is no true control. You can get ready and you can prepare but, in the end, exactly how everything unfolds is yet to be determined. Until it happens in the moment. And then you must respond as best you can.
- There are no second chances at a scene. Your day happens and you do your best to prepare. Then, as things unfold for real, you use your skills and – ideally – your confidence, to adjust as you go, to zig when others zag, to respond appropriately. Things move only forward. There’s no starting over. Perfection is not an option. All you can do is learn from the process and move ahead.
- You must know your character. When you know who you are deep down, you can respond to whatever comes at you in a way that agrees with that person, with your values and your goals and what you hold most dear.
- Listening is key. When you listen – really listen – to others in your conversations, you will understand what matters to them and respond accordingly. You will know how to move forward or push back. You will know who is your fit and who is not. Zoning out with others will kill a scene. And your day.
(By the way, there is one more improv rule you might know, which is the “Yes, and…” rule. Basically, you must agree with whatever your scene partners say in order to move the story forward. Makes sense on the stage, but I have intentionally left this rule out of the list. You’re welcome.)
Okay Deirdre, you might be saying…I get it. So how can I get better at the improv that is life?
Good question, you.
The way to get better at life’s improv is – first – to stop fighting it. Understand and accept (and embrace!) that there’s no true script. That there’s no true control. That you get only one shot at each day and it will unfold in front of you as it will. All you can do is prepare and respond and learn as you go.
And then? Practice-practice-practice.
Get good at listening, at sticking to your character, at responding in the moment because you truly know who you are and what matters to you and others. (And get good at knowing this matters more than pleasing anybody…a whole other blog topic, I know. You can start here or here)
Don’t try to script responses to everyone and everything that might happen. Things simply can’t go down that way.
Take it from me…from one who LOVES the script, and isn’t so much a fan of improv. (Off the stage and on it.)
Life can only improve if we all get a little better at controlling a little less.
PS: A big thanks to fabulous director of and fellow actor in last year’s “Holiday Special”, Samantha Goldstein…and to Jeff Bushnell for taking the pic!
PPS: Thanks, too, to jonasosthassel for the photo of the fun (and true) Curb Your Enthusiasm poster.