There is a moment in an improv scene, or I should say many moments in an improv scene, when you and your scene partner are standing on the breathtaking precipice of the unknown. It’s a wonderful, terrifying feeling.
It can happen like this.
Top of the scene: the two of you staring off into the distance—without a clue what it is you’re staring at. You just know that whatever it is holds great meaning for both of you. It’s a delicious feeling, once you get used to it. Addictive even. Because in that moment anything can happen. Ultimately, one of you will narrow down the zillions of possibilities by stating something. “Shooewee! That there fire took the whole barn!” The more specific, the narrower the path ahead. Like this:
“Shooewee! That there fire took the whole barn.”
“I told you that vagrant was trouble.”
“Couldn’t very well turn him out now, could I? Not in this cold.”
“Jeb, my big hulky cowboy husband, your good heart is going to be the death of you.”
With each line of dialogue you, along with the audience, discover a little more about what’s going on. The story gains its own momentum. You can also draw out that feeling of infinite possibilities by doing what are called blind offers. They go something like this:
“It sure is.”
“Never thought is would happen this soon.”
“No one did. But it’s happening.”
In an opening like this, all you’re doing is building suspense. Ultimately, you’ll have to narrow it down, define what it is that’s “happening.” An invasion from outer space? The demotion of a building? The coming of spring?
The fun of opening this way is you get to dwell a little longer in that pool of possibility. But it takes enormous trust, not only in your partner, but in yourself. You relax, you listen, you look. You notice the twitch of your partner’s eyebrow, the emphasis she puts on the words. Is she excited or terrified? Angry or relieved? You notice the unevenness of her breathing, the way her left hand fiddles with her clothing. You notice how your own breathing responds. It’s as if you’ve grown invisible tentacles of awareness that not only make you mindful of yourself, but stretch out so far you even hear a distant siren outside.
It’s a feeling that new improvisers often run from. It’s too scary. So they try to make something happen, fast, spewing information at their partner, barely taking the time to notice what their partner is even doing, or possibly saying, let alone what their breathing pattern is. I’ve done it myself. Lots. It’s that need to fill the emptiness. Quick! Before something you can’t handle comes at you. But by trying to make things happen, we cheat ourselves from discovering what is already happening, which, trust me, is way more fun.
Lately, I’ve been hunting for these “precipice moments” in my daily life. See, I’m kind of a control addict. I plan what I’m having for dinner while eating lunch. I make lists. I fill my calendar with activities. (Is it any wonder I teach improv? As they say, we teach what we need to learn.) So I’m changing it up. I’m not planning my days down to the second, not herding my life into the one I think I’ll want later. Sure, I still have to be places at a certain time, still have to make a living, still enjoy planning gatherings with friends, still make lists. If not for planning, some things would never happen. But I’m also exploring what it means to have more space in my life, to not have my future locked down quite so tightly. And it’s amazing! When I’m in a conversation with someone I’m really listening rather than thinking about the next thing on my list. When I’m eating lunch, I’m tasting it rather than thinking about how good dinner’s going to be. I’m experiencing what it means to be present in my life and, wide-eyed and curious, I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next!
Coming soon, I’m going to experience this life of infinite possibilities in a big way. My partner and I are about to take a road trip, a long one, in our ’91 Chevy van. We’re giving ourselves four months. The plan is to go from one coast to the other, using two lane highways, visiting people we love, camping in our national and state parks. Besides starting with a southern route, and that we want to wade in the Pacific and the Atlantic, and some select “must-sees” that’s pretty much all we know. We may not even be gone four months. We may come home with our tails between our legs. Or we may find a spot we love so much we stay there for weeks. But that’s the whole point of this trip, to discover as we go. To see what happens. To boldly travel into the future backwards, as improvisers say, to know where we’ve been but have no idea where we’re going. It’s a big step for a control addict like me. Am I scared? A little. Excited? Very. But I’m ready for the reveal. Oh yeah.