The Effect of Time on Improv and Life

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The first thing I do when I teach improv classes is ask the group to get into a circle.

I count how long it takes them. The average for a group of 16 students is about ten seconds. The quality of the group’s movement is lethargic, meandering, hesitant and a bit dismissive of the need to make a circle in the first place. Why do we have to do this…aren’t we adults?

Then, without giving any more context, I ask everyone to make a circle again, but this time in five seconds. Then, I repeat and give them four seconds. Already, the energy in the room has shifted. People are (almost accidentally, against their will) smiling at the challenge of making a circle so quickly. They are giggling a bit and their eyes are focused like lasers. At this point, the room starts to get a bit nervous also, a bit tense. People’s shoulders elevate and people bump into each other in their frenzy to make the circle in only four seconds. So I introduce an idea into the room, namely that “making a circle today is literally the stupidest and least important thing you will do all day. It is not a big deal, so let’s not get anxious about it. And — let’s see if we can get ‘er done, this time in only three seconds…”

By the time we’re down to making a circle in one second, we’re operating like magic. There is kinesthetic energy and excitement in the room. I wrap up by asking the group to qualify the difference between the first circle we made in roughly ten seconds and the final one in one second. And then I introduce a quote by one of my favorite musical theater composers, Leonard Bernstein, who said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” What if we do not give ourselves enough time? Instead, we challenge ourselves to simply create with immediacy and intention. There is no risk of messing up making a circle. Note that I’m not asking us to make the “perfect” circle. The circle can be a bit clumped on one side, or oblong, or elliptical. None of that matters. The only thing matters is making the circle, aka making a choice, without hesitation or fear.

Great improv is making a circle in as close to zero seconds as possible. Removing the fear-based delay we build in to avoid making a choice that may or may not be foolish or “incorrect.” Great improv is about how you create with alacrity and focus and joy — and not about nailing the perfect idea, aka circle. And yet, it is amazing the lengths improvisers will go to not be in the present moment, but live 3 seconds ahead of it, or ten seconds, or a minute, or 15 minutes ahead of what’s going on right now out of a need to control and protect themselves from failure. Ironically, this fear-based way of playing only decreases your ability to be funny, and the audience can smell it a mile away. There is nothing funnier than someone who looks like they truly just came up with the idea they improvised. Someone who had the courage to improvise dangerously by living in the present moment. Improvisers spend oodles of energy trying to look polished onstage, like they know where the show is going and “got it under wraps.” They try to control slippage. But slippage — and room to make mistakes — is what I crave most when watching improv! I don’t want to watch your “polished” scene. I do want you to have poise and be in control of yourself and your actions onstage —but underneath that, I want you see you embracing the hot mess. Embracing the wild fire of not knowing what’s going to happen next and — can you believe it ?!— even surprising yourself now and then with what comes of your mouth. That can happen only when you don’t give yourself enough time to think of the “correct” next thing to say or do.

And on that note, I introduce the next concept of saying “Fuck It.” Trying to do things “right” is death to creativity and improv. That’s how and why we get in our heads. So, let’s not treat it as anything special. As a great teacher of mine, Mick Napier, said once, “the more importance you put on any activity, the less room you have to be relaxed and play while doing it.” That’s why people tend to bomb improv auditions — because they’ve allowed themselves to make it very important in their heads that it go well. And so they can’t be loose and just play freely.

But it’s also not enough to just say “Fuck It.” I want you to also be excited about what you are doing. I want you to relish the challenge of creating instantly and let that joy and enthusiasm show in your eyes. I want you to exemplify both “Fuck It!” and “I couldn’t be more excited right now!” Note that if you’re just “Mr. Fuck It,” then you may be the asshole on the team who has lost the light of whimsy behind your eyes — someone who no one wants to play with anymore. If you’re just “Mr. Enthusiasm,” then you may treat the show like it’s very important that we do well because there’s people in the audience we gotta impress and “dog damn it guys, we’re gotta kill in our show tonight!” And then you will be too uptight to be relaxed onstage. So, we want to be able to say both “Fuck It!” and “I’m so excited right now” at the same time.

The next exercise I teach continues to explore time. I have everyone perform 60 second two-person improv scenes, followed by 30 second, then 15 second, then 7.5 second scenes. Sometimes, I then go back up the scale to 60 seconds. The quality of the improv changes as the time decreases, most notably: people don’t have time to think or plan or worry about where the scene is going in the 7.5 second scene. That takes the pressure to make it a “good scene” off the shoulders and they just get to play. This manifests then in action-packed, high-energy, character-driven scenes that start in the middle…something people pay thousands of dollars in master-classes to learn how to do. And yet, we play organically like this when we just remove the pressure of time. I expound on this concept further in this separate improv article about their being no right or wrong choices, only weak or strong ones.

Beyond just the context of teaching improv, I’ve been thinking on the effect of time in my overall life. How my relationship to time can change my mood and momentum on a dime. Usually, the thing that kills my joy is the idea that I’m “wasting” time. That I’ve lost out on prime time from my youth, that I’ve somehow missed a turn toward success or a critical something-something. I fear my potential decreasing over time…that I had better hit the gas before I turn 35 because after that my body and mind are going to slow down, whether I like it or not.

I sometimes pine for how I felt when I was 20 and the world was full of possibility. When I was still in school and allowed to just be learning and didn’t expect to have yet achieved [insert]. The older I get, the more I compare myself with others. And though I am genuinely happy when my friends succeed, it can’t help but feel their accomplishments reflect my lack of achievement.

“Blinders on!” Susan Messing used to say when I took classes with her in Chicago. She encouraged us to not compare ourselves to others or the idea we have of where we should be in our head. Just be where you are now, and grateful that you are alive and no one’s shooting at you.

And if you want a further wake-up call, here’s one: you are going to die. You could die today, or tonight, and it could be totally out of your control. It could really catch you off-guard, and your last second could be a joke wondering why you stressed out over your last bad improv set when the world was beautiful and worthy of gratitude. Though morbid as hell (or heaven or whatever you believe), this line of thinking reminds me that true joy is living in the present — be it creating onstage or walking your dog on a cold February day. I want to manage the effect time has on my life and not allow it to overwhelm me or slow me down. I want to say “Fuck it” and “I’m excited” when I wake up every day. I want to allow myself to be where I am in the timeline of my life, and not fear missing out on some alternate universe version of myself (who’s probably very stressed out managing his huge Twitter following anyway).

I want to make a circle in no time at all and be happy with whatever that circle looks like. And then create it again and again.