Over the past three years, I’ve experienced a series of abrupt personal losses. The latest one has torn a hole in my heart, smashed my view of the future and has me raking over the coals of my past searching for some clue as to how the hell I got there. To be honest, I’ve had better summers.
I am blessed to have a wonderful support group of diverse friends, and they have certainly risen to the challenge of being consistently there for me. My immediate improv family has been relentless in guiding me as I forge through uncharted water, with advice that mirrors the principals of improvisation. David Shepherd, the father of improvisation, has often said that improv skills are essential life skills.
Submerged in grief, I find myself practicing denial, not agreement. I should be handling this life crisis with a moment-to-moment approach. But, I’m frequently playwriting in my head, trying to predict, manipulate and control the unknown. While I should be accepting helpful suggestions with a “yes, and” mindset, my first thought is “yes, but.”
Constant activity is the key to maintaining my stress levels. Yet I find myself physically paralyzed, refusing to move, explore and discover something within my space that leads to a more productive kinetic energy. I’m aware of the powerful connection between body and soul – however I resist making the effort. My listening skills are unpredictable, easily offended and will file away any recommendations it simply does not want to hear.
This is surprising behavior for one who has been immersed in improv for forty-three years now.
Fortunately, some improv skills die harder than others. While it is a monumental effort to be in the moment, build on ideas, embrace the unknown and listen – I find that there are other skills that are deeply imbedded in my damaged id and are in fact, second nature to who I am.
Whenever I engage in conversation about my situation with a friend, I automatically lapse into playing characters. The act of role-playing as people who are key principals in my situation has provided me with insight and empathy. I’ve rediscovered the power of pauses and silence to take in a moment, thus allowing sincere emotion to rise. As the result of that revelation, I’ve realized that very little was said in my more potent conversations. Whether on stage, in a workshop or in real life, it takes courage not to be constantly chattering.
I have a long journey ahead of me. As in life, improv is replete with mistakes and bad habits. Occasionally, a magnificent moment occurs which makes the effort worthwhile. There are no guarantees in life or improv. All you can do is be real and embrace the unknown – which improv provides the tools for.
For people like me who have been in this improv game for a long time, when you stop practicing what you preach, you lose the core of who you are. I almost forgot that. Thankfully, my improv family had no intention of allowing that to happen.
Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher. He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at email@example.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa. He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube). His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.