creativity, improvisation

Trust the process, improvise success

I was given 90 minutes to do something fun and creative at a Spittoon tour event in Chengdu, China. It could be about anything! And I was delightfully overwhelmed with possibility. So, I listened to the words of a mentor: “let’s do nothing and then take a break.” The event was not for another month, so I planned to do a lot of nothing until then.

After many walks along the river during my lunch breaks, I finally turned on to an idea for the event: Improv Storytelling. It married two of my favorite things in the world and something I personally wanted to know more about. It made me nervous and feverishly eager. As a long time student of improvisation and storytelling, I believe in their potential to inspire youthfulness and affect positive change in people.

The following week during an open mic night, I met Olaf who happened to come from the world of comedy and improvisation. We instantly clicked, and I invited him to co-lead the Spittoon night with me. Our basic intention was to play improv games, grasp its principles and then apply them to storytelling. We expected maybe a small group.

On the night of the event, it was a wonderful turnout with a crowd of around 30 people. There were a few who knew about improv and most people just seemed curious. For those who were not familiar I clarified some terms.

Firstly, improvisation means performing without preparation. Great actors, musicians, dancers use it to tap their inner wisdom and the group genius of their teams. It’s an out-of-ego experience. It’s where we rest our intellect and create something together in the moment. And it’s something we all do to some extent.

For example, imagine running down a flight of stairs. You don’t calculate every step in that fast pace. If we did that we’d tumble down the steps. Instead, we trust our instincts and let the body act in a flow of movement that turns up effortlessly. The brain is wired for safety, and our job is to let it work and trust the process. In other words, be present.

I once met a pianist who was on his way to play at the world-famous Carnegie Hall in New York. I asked him, “When are your moments of magic when you’re performing?” He paused and said, “when I get out of my own way.” This is common sense for great artists because they know the best they can do is let the work come through and let it come first.

While it’s not about preparation, improv does have core principles that set us up for success:

Be in the moment

There is nothing outside of this moment and that is magical because this is when we are truly listening. Simply being present is a catalyst for conversation. When we get out of our heads, even briefly, new ideas have a chance to sprout.

“Yes and”

Pixar has now released a score of hit-films that people love. Their magic doesn’t begin at a masterpiece. It’s the process of repeated failure and learning through “yes and”. When an idea is offered, we don’t have to worry about pushback with “no” or hesitation. The tension of uncertainty actually advances the idea further. Every film goes through 10’s of thousands of storyboards to distill the story to its essential features. “We labor over the story,” says Pixar CEO John Lasseter. Improvisation is in the DNA of Pixar’s culture and what they call plussing is the idea of driving forward together with “yes and.”

Make your partner look good

During a group improv session, basically, our job is to make each other look good. Instead of shooting down each other’s ideas, we build them through “yes and.” In other words, it’s about empathy. My personal story runs on the same thread. Overcoming speech impediment and social anxiety required me to change my inner narrative from “what will they think?” to “what pleasure can I bring?”

There are no mistakes, only opportunities

Soon as we let go of the need to be perfect, we open ourselves to rapidly learn from mistakes and continuously grow as a result. Master improviser Robbin Williams puts it best, “we have to fail to find the new.”

As shapers of our own stories, improv is a way of being with them to inspire trust and cooperation. What started as an invitation to do nothing, “yes and” led me to a room full of adults playing, creating, and connecting. The night was a blast and through a series of games, the group met friction and flight, and that’s life in the moment.

Without a head

The first night I fell with a high fever, vomiting through trembling teeth. My head was caved in from the high altitude I could feel death looming in and out of my veins. The next morning, I stayed in bed while the others wandered the town. I was extremely glad to have a comfortable bed with the hostel manager looking after me. He was lighthearted and I didn’t have the energy to say much. His Chinese name translated to “without a head”. His WeChat id had the tagline “always stay naive.”

It was Spring and the three of us had taken a 13hour bus ride to Seda for a taste of Tibetan culture. Seda, also known as Sertar, is a Tibetan county west of Sichuan in China. At nearly 4,000 meters elevation, Seda Monastery is the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist school and houses up to 40,000 monks and nuns in dorms stacked across in a valley. The tiny lit windows spread a colorful mosaic that blends into the starry night sky.

The next morning, I was about 60% and decided to roam with the others. At dawn, we hiked up the mountain for a view of the valley where the monastery laid. Morning prayer was in order and clouds of incense smoke covered the valley. Fingertips freezing, the sun slowly peeked over the mountains and shadows began to stretch. We goofed around a bit then sat quietly with the sunrise. There was a cold stream in my belly.

We then made our way toward the monastery. I was woozy and grumpy while the other two chatted with the locals. Everyone was dressed in different variations of a brown and red cloak with a softness in their face. I spotted a cozy corner by the temple’s entrance and dropped for an overdue nap deep into my beanie and jacket. The cold air, fever, trembling body. I hated everything and somehow content. I had given up the will to change anything and had no regrets.

Next day we took a shuttle to the sky burial where vultures feast on the dead. It’s customary funeral for Tibetans, a morbid fascination for tourists. Six bodies had been laid and prepared in a pit for dozens of vultures to digest. Slowly birds swarmed in and tore away at the limbs. The thick smell of carcass waved around the funeral site while the birds frenzied in the pit; some flying overhead with wings blanketing the sun. Some were playing tug-o-war with the skin that wouldn’t tear. Near the end, a man with a butchers’ outfit walks to each skull with a knife and strikes a pounding blow at the base, cracks an opening and tosses them to the birds. They beaked into the brain as the jaw bone loosely opened and closed. I couldn’t help but see myself as an anonymous skull in that pit.

Same sun new day, head fevered and knees were trembling after a lengthy walk around town. We spotted a café and claimed a dim empty room with couches all around. We each took a full sofa and crashed from sheer exhaustion. Alina was cold and quiet. The window behind her was open with cool breeze coming in. Just as I got up to close it for her, Ree dashes for the window and slides it shut. She then falls dead on the couch. I drop my head and quietly start crying. I was drained and didn’t need a reason survey my tears but I felt relief. Maybe it was the emptiness inside and the kindness near. It’s like letting it stream down your face and grabbing at no wave because the ocean moves through us.

Meeting rage with vitality

Henry is in his alpha state of vitality and has been crushing it all morning. He’s feeling good and focused. He gets into his car and slowly backs out of the driveway. He can’t see the incoming cars so he goes extra slow. A white van passes. He brakes, and slowly begins again. A second car comes and gives Henry a fury honk, quite lengthy and pointless really. Henry gently brakes and turns to look at the driver and it was a dumb cunt. Just as rage swells up, Henry’s alpha is still near and offers a vision of empathy. With a slight turn of awareness, he steps outside of himself and sees through the eyes of the girl thinking, “Maybe she thinks I was trying to get in her way. What’s in her way? Who knows.” He drops it and resumes to alpha.

Vitality: primal state of well being.
Patience: knowing when to let it be.
Empathy: stepping outside of yourself.