Writing as Improv

Posted by Michael on May 15, 2013

By Molly Bain

A few years ago, I came across a Groupon advertisement for an improv class in my inbox. Having been trained (read indoctrinated) in the theatre (exhibit A: use of the British spelling), I had always assumed improv was for people who enjoyed theatre as a sort of quick-wit party trick and/or drinking game, not for people who regard the stage as a canvas upon which high art is crafted (exhibit B).  But after two years of conservatory-esque performing arts training in college, I transferred out and fell into a stack of queer studies texts, only to surface upon graduation armed with a bachelor’s in general studies and an AmeriCorps job opportunity. I spent most of my twenties in teaching and nonprofits and found myself in my thirties back where I had started my twenties: hungry for storytelling.

So I stared at my computer screen, wondering at the email. I then stared out the window near my desk where a few months back, in a winterizing frenzy, we’d replaced the screen for a storm window. Suddenly I wanted to open both literal and figurative windows. Why not bounce around on stage and figure out whether or not you can make a story in two-minutes’ time? Why not welcome the storm?

Well, because bouncing around on stage without a script, for most classically trained actors, is like opening up your windows in January: you might get a gust of fresh air, but mostly you feel uncomfortable and like you’re doing that “method” exercise where you repeat a line over and over again until you somehow conjure the primal core of the thing. In other words, you bask in its romance, question its utility, and try to justify the indulgence (mostly its related CO2 emissions).  

But, for me, the great gift (and surprise) of improv is that while it may or may not have helped me as an actor, it has helped me as a writer.  The surprise of improv is that its communities are full of—more so than actors—writers. Why? As Phillip Lopate writes in The Art of the Personal Essay, “To essay is to attempt, to test, to make a run at something without knowing whether you are going to succeed…There is something heroic in the essayist’s gesture of striking out toward the unknown, not only without a map, but without certainty that there is anything worthy to be found.” This is what every improviser knows in her bones, too. You get up there because you want to discover something fun and hopefully illuminating, but you never know and often don’t. More so, to pretend you know (and make plans as though you know) gets you into a whole mess of trouble.  So instead you use strategies to help you excavate and generate, and these directing, guiding techniques, when boiled down to their essence, are also the writer’s: you home in on and follow the story.

As in writing, improv demands you work with classic story structures, employing and manipulating them to support and drive your content. You also use them to help explore and discover what’s to come—in part so you can strategically undermine or subvert that expectation in (hopefully) meaningful, playful, satisfying ways. How else are you going to make sense out of that earlier business where you and your fellow improvisers devised a scene in which you belonged to a modern dance troupe known for its elbow work and also accidentally took an artisanal cheese maker hostage? Well, you make sense of it through form. The content might not always be classical, revelatory, or speak to the universality of human struggle, but the structure does—because you’re following the drama. As Lopate suggests in even how we understand the essayist’s work, we’re interested in the hero’s journey. We always are. It’s an emotional pattern as story structure that organizes some fundamental chaos of life. As soon as we set it up, we’re hooked and interested in, if not exactly invested in, the artisanal cheese maker’s plight and folly: Will she escape and become known across the land for her cheeses redolent of that specific sweat created and cradled in the unique crevice of the elbow’s interior?

It may seem that performing without a script is contrary to what all writers, irrespective of genre, crave: control in all its manifestations—precision and concision of line and idea, endless opportunities for revision, redaction, clever qualification, etc.  But I’d argue that improvising, as a process, is a truer reflection of the writing journey: you attempt to crystallize a thought through gesture, you fail, you rework it, you fail, you consult your notes and attempt again with a whole new frame, you flail, you play, you succeed a little, you breathe and revise, you sigh and write a bit more, and then you realize you have to repeat the whole semaphore-spasm again. But through it all, you hope you’re slowly hitting upon a story that you can harness as both engine and container for all of those data and ideas you’re so bent upon.  I think the hope, too, is that story—rather than the language you’re wrapped up in, seduced by, attached to—will illuminate something deeper, perhaps more profound than those ideas themselves—something about their risks and rewards, their urgencies and consequences, what the ideas/data look like when embodied and lived.  

Of course what I’ve failed to address here (and what was also naturally my inspiration for blogging about improv as the most amazing metaphor for writing ever) is what I think we—in this particular writing process, project, and journey—can take most from the improv world: storytelling as a collaborative enterprise. More than an exercise in releasing control, it’s a revision of one of the central fantasies of writing: that we do it alone, separated from the world and self-sufficient in our own little Ted Kaczynski cabin of creativity. Especially in the land of modern research and nonfiction, this fantasy seems particularly worthy of deconstructing.  We always rely on one another for data, insights, interviews, theoretical reframings, etc. In To Think, To Write, To Publish, we’re relying on our collaboration partners for something more fundamental: how they hear the story, how they see the characters and the ideas each represent, how they map the world that together we’re trying to traverse. In improv, this is called listening with a capital L: you’re not just trying to assess if you’re on the same page with your collaborator (and if not, determining the most efficient multi-step plan to get them back on yours); rather you’re listening for emotional matter—hesitation, excitement, delight, disdain. These will help you find your focus, your game. In improv, you always assume that the conversation between players is the sacred archeological dig site where together you unearth the story.  And yes, you can dig alone, but in so doing, you’ll find a different story—and many fewer gifts along the way.