“Abandoned to the whims of others, we must wander daily though the wish to be loved and the fear of rejection before we can be productive […] we become so enmeshed with the tenuous threads of approval/disapproval that we are creatively paralyzed. We see with other’s eyes and smell with others’ noses.”Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater. A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Third Edition. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1999. p.7
For those of us who have spent any time in the field of improvisation, finding, nurturing and maintaining a sense of playful abandon in our craft is a central preoccupation. Abandon is a childlike sense of exploration, a joyful commitment to the process at hand, an uninhibited embracing of the here and now that seeks to at least suspend (or at most silence) the voices of critique and judgement. To play, as children often do, for the sake of playing itself is the hallmark of improvisational abandon at its most unfettered and free.
Viola Spolin nods to the enemies of playfulness in the quote above: our fear of failure or embarrassment, our need for approval or gratification from our internal judges or our external teachers, peers or audiences, our injuries from past stumbles or perceived failures. These strong influences can all conspire to take us out of the precious moment of creativity, and make us, instead, “see with other’s eyes” as we navigate the unknown terrain that is improvisation. To play with abandon, then, is to dismiss this background noise so that you can be fully present in the moment.
Strategies for Nurturing Abandon in Your Play
1.) A judgment-free process starts with you. Often, we are our own hardest judges or critics and it’s important to note that if we bring this energy into our playing spaces, it will be difficult for others to shift the paradigm. It’s not uncommon for this self-judging to represent itself as negativity or for others to perceive (rightly or wrongly) that your critical eye is actually leveled at them rather than yourself. This will quickly erode any trust that is building. If you are feeling anxious, unhappy or frustrated with your work, be sure not to reflect these self-perceptions onto your fellow ensemble members. It’s one thing to share, “I just felt off in that scene;” it’s another to say, “That scene was really terrible and nothing good was happening in it.”
2.) Separate the playing from the evaluation. Notes and assessment are an important part of every art, and it would be counter-productive to advocate for a position of never reflecting honestly on our work. However, if you are spending every moment on stage actively assessing your choices, you are unlikely to be present and connected deeply to your scene partners and the nuances of the story as it unfolds. Give yourself permission to turn off this note-taker until you’re back in the greenroom or reflecting on the action after-the-fact. To return to the image of children playing above, they rarely assess the effectiveness of their playing during the game itself as this would suspend the very act of playful creation.
3.) Lower the stakes. If you have limited or infrequent opportunities to play and practice your craft, this can make the moments you are onstage feel disproportionately and unhelpfully crucial: “If this is my only chance to play this month, then every moment must be exceptional as I won’t get another chance for ages.” There is something to be said for the sporting model of “getting in rotations.” If you’re able to expand your network of performance groups and opportunities, this can abate that voice that wants every scene to be an exemplar. In addition to exposing yourself to different energies and styles of improv, you are also building resilience and strengthening your skill set.
4.) Give yourself a small, discrete challenge. I’ve become a big fan of a pre-show personal challenge, especially when working on some of my more complex long-forms that can feel overwhelming during the development process. If you have a hard time quieting your inner voice, then at least focus this self-scrutiny in a helpful way. Before performances, challenge yourself to something specific that you can review once the curtain has lowered. Avoid opaque or generalized objectives, such as “to do better” or “to knock it out of the park,” and instead consider a personal trend you’re wanting to elevate or adjust, such as “I want to have a strong character point of view,” or “I want to give scenes room to breathe.”
5.) Focus on the joy of others. If you’re a people pleaser, take this suggestion with a grain of salt, but if we’re setting each other up for joy on the stage, then it’s likely that some of this joy will find its way back to us. There are many improvisers in my current performance network that just bring such a wonderful, silly and carefree energy to the stage that I want to mirror this playfulness back to them even if I find myself a little in my head that particular day. Most players will quickly forgive a “less than fantastic” choice or move if it was generated from a generous and giving spirit. Just make sure you extend this same courtesy of forgiveness to others, and perhaps more importantly, to yourself.
I think it would be fair to say that many if not most of us are attracted to the craft of improv as it gives us a chance to reconnect to that childhood spirit of play and creativity. When we consciously or otherwise decide that we want to become good at this passion and take it more seriously, our sense of abandon can often become a casualty to this cause. But it’s important that we hold onto to this foundational energy and attitude. Improvisers, after all, are often referred to as “players” as this sense of play is so fundamental to our art. So, by all means, take your improv seriously, just don’t extinguish the very abandon that likely attracted you to the art in the first place.
This is the first entry in my “A to Z of Improv” terminology series. You can find the current index of terms here.
Connected Game: Room at the Inn