I recently spent a week with David Shepherd, the father of improvisation, to attend his tribute and to work on getting his archives in order. Since I was staying in a cottage on his property, we had an abundance of quality time together.
David immediately writes down every interesting idea that he hears (“Otherwise you will forget it!”) on 3x5 index cards. There’s always a stack nearby. Strewn all over his office, you’ll find cards with a phrase, exchange or just a word or two that is designed to open up a plethora of improv possibilities.
One morning over breakfast, we talked about a close mutual friend, who to this day, still mocks me for the amount of preparation I invest in my workshops. He finds that I put unnecessary pressure on myself. Considering that I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, couldn’t I simply walk into a workshop and conduct it off the top of my head? I suppose I could – but the mere thought makes me shudder.
As David taught me, my plans are written out on 3x5 index cards. Some are detailed, with the plans broken up into warm-ups, technique, formats, closure. Others, just a series of games to choose from, based on the atmosphere of the group. On the back of the cards, I also have a plan “B” – just in case my original design isn’t working. I even have a plan “C.”
The workshop card is either tucked in my back or breast pocket for quick reference. Students are always curious about the cards. More so when they try to peek over my shoulder to see what was written, and I shield it from them in mock shock, as if they’ve overstepped a boundary. Sometimes, while looking over a card, I make it seem like I’m thinking out loud, wondering what to do next; “No, I don’t have the heart to try this today. Good God, what was I thinking when I wrote this one down? Okay, this is just flat-out sadism on my part!”
I also use the index cards for student suggestions – handing them out when I need ideas for themes, phrases, scene ideas, locations, and characters.
Remember, I’ve been doing this for over thirty years. Unfortunately, I’ve inherited one of David Shepherd’s notable attributes; I can’t throw anything out.
So, I have boxes of 3x5 index cards of workshop plans and student suggestions stashed in a closet in my office. I don’t know what to do with them. Make a collage or construct a piece of modern art with them? Try to find a linear thread for the world’s longest Harold?
I’ve thought about recycling student suggestions for future workshops with different groups, but that doesn’t feel right. Every idea should come out of the group you’re presently working with. It has to be organic.
When my wife and I go grocery shopping, the list is made out on a blank 3x5 index card. There are always fresh ones lying around. One time while shopping, I noticed that the list was written on the back of a workshop card. It was an introductory workshop, something, ironically, I could have done off the top of my head without preparing. Yet, I exploded at my wife.
“How could you write on the back of this card? This could have been a break-through workshop!”
“No! But that’s beside the point!”
Yes, it is a magical adventure to live with the wonder that is me.
Another time, a friend picked up what he thought was a blank index card from my office to write down a recipe for his wife. Later, his wife noticed what was written on the other side. In very small print was “Lick my ear,” a line suggested by a student. It didn’t help my friend that a heart was drawn over the “i.”
Sometimes I fall behind keeping a fresh stack of cards in my office and find myself scrambling when I can’t find a clean one to write on. Once, out of necessity because I was running late for a workshop, I designed a plan on an 8x10 piece of paper.
It didn’t feel right – and I was off my game for that particular workshop. I needed something that I could just gaze at in my palm quickly, rather than unfold what felt like an ancient scroll to me. The cards guide me.
As boxes continue being filled with used index cards, I wonder if they’ll eventually end up in my own archives one day – perplexing future generations of improvisers trying to figure out the connection between improv and a grocery list.