You have to listen for them. They’re there.
I was blessed back in 1998 (to be technical, I’ve been blessed every day before and since, but anyway) when I was cast in Northwestern University’s Titanic Players and began to study improv. I could wax for hours in pretentious, art-meets-philosophy mumbojumbo-speak about how improv is life, but I’ll spare us all the trouble. You’re welcome.*
Laura and I go back to 1996, a coupla north suburban Chicago speech team kids diving into the dysfunctional waters of the National Forensics Tournament in Fayetteville, NC… We were also teammates on Titanic. Last night, I saw Laura improvise with Chet Watkins in New York City. And while I’m far from my collegiate crisp salad days in Titanic, far even from my mid-20′s wilted greens days in Valid Hysteria, I like to think I’ve still got the eye, or the ear, for improv.
Patterns were everywhere.
The great improvisers recognize a pattern’s potential with the second element aired, and cement it for the rest of us with number three. Decent improvisers respect number three. Greatness again can be achieved or avoided in what you do with it. The greats play the pattern, just play out the game the pattern delivers, so simple, so satisfying. The less great complicate; they deny the pattern, think they’re better, more clever than the pattern…
Let’s not get too technical, that really isn’t the point. Laura and I talked about her show a bit as we trekked out to Brooklyn, then switched to relationships.** We talked about me and mine, her and hers, our friends and theirs. Was it the priming device of improv that night, or the cognitive framework of improv in general, that influenced our perspectives? Laura called out the first one, a doozy, that.
Patterns were everywhere.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: Fundamentally, improv isn’t really about patterns… not really. Improv is about listening. I foreshadowed it in the first paragaph, saying you had to listen for em. You see how I did that? :-)
Our challenge, then, is to listen. You do need a little savvy to distinguish the pattern from the noise. Sure. But if you’re not listening in the first place, you won’t pick up on a blessed thing — nothing. It’s all a bewildering, limitless expanse, no knowing what’s coming next, no smart way to accommodate.
In The Tipping Point, Gladwell disclosed how telegraph operators analyzed enemy communications. This is separate from Bletchley Park, Alan Turing, the Enigma machine, all of that. Regular old telegraph operators learned their counterparts’ “fist,” or the unique signature with which they communicated — their pressure and tempo on the telegraph keys, as well as the expansiveness and pacing of their interpersonal chatter. While the Allied listeners didn’t know precisely what the Axis operators were saying, they knew which unique communicator was doing the talking. Gladwell likened this to a relationship’s DNA, an ingrained communication style shaping each interchange — a dynamic. A pattern.
So what are we going to do with it? How do we achieve greatness? To what extent are our personal and interpersonal patterns inescapable? Where is innovation possible, advisable, not just a (doomed?) vanity project of proving one’s “extraordinariness,” and where do we surrender to the pattern and play it out (or exit stage left)?
Tonight I’ll take in Meg‘s improv show with The Baldwins. Meg has been one of my best friends since 1994, and thanks to her and her fiance, my car stereo/heart is richer by two CD’s (lady power mix and sad country, respectively). Wonder if/how we’ll hear the patterns… and what we’ll do next.
*I happen to believe that improv is life, and improv’s approaches to good playing could be embraced as approaches to good living (shouldn’t life be lived playfully, afterall?). But then maybe you’ll come back with an example of how yoga or guitar-playing is life and I just really don’t want to get into it. ;-)
**See, this is where long-form improvisers would chime in, Improv is relationships!