Spirituality in Improv

The laws of art are the same as the laws of morality.
-Robert Schumann

During a recent Transactors class, it struck me that I kept making references to tenets of various religions as I instructed my students. No, I wasn't telling them about tithing or Hallal butchering methods, but rather I was saying things like:

You'd have thought I was teaching a class on ethical behavior or spiritual practice. But maybe that's what's supposed to happen in any artistic endeavor, perhaps in an endeavor of any sort; you run into spiritual truths that religions and philosophies have been trying to convey or explain for millennia.

Improv, when you see it, isn't likely to look like a spiritual practice, especially if the improv's not good. Being funny is serious business though. Being deeply funny—getting what I call "the nutritious laugh," the one from the heart—is deeply serious. The Transactors' way of doing comedy involves more vulnerability and emotional commitment than cleverness or being wacky. Sartre opined "Comedy is pain." Then again, he was French. I wouldn't say that all comedy stems from anguish, but I would say the most deeply funny things involve our strongest emotions and even instincts. If they happen to tickle the mind, that's gravy.

So when I direct Transactors and when I teach our workshops and courses, folks are always surprised and sometimes amazed at what I tell them and have them do. My goal is to create an atmosphere in which actors and students feel comfortable becoming vulnerable and bringing out what's inside them. We've all got uniquely original and funny ideas swimming around inside us, the trick is to share them and not let our preconceptions and societal standards for funniness get in the way.

Thus we focus on trust. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That's the Golden Rule from Christianity. Give away all that you have (your ideas, that is). That's from the Sermon on the Mount.

We try to live with the Buddhist exhortations to heighten awareness and keep things simple. All you need in improv is there before you if you'll only see it and hear it. See what you see, not what you think you see. Hear what you hear, not what you think you hear. Be present in the moment. Try to avoid thinking about what has just happened and what you think is going to happen and focus on what is happening. Another Buddhist tenet is to empty yourself of desire and expectation. If you can do that, you will be open to any possibility in a scene.

Taoism instructs us to go with the flow. There may be no more important concept for improv. Be like water. Follow what happens. Wu-wei--take no action (that is, no action contrary to the flow of what is happening).

Primitive peoples often believe that God is in everything (including the details). Thus everything is sacred and worthy of attention. This is useful in improv. A wonderful scene can be about the seemingly most insignificant thing. Focusing on physicality and its expression of the soul is another primitive idea that works in improv.

I'm afraid I don't know enough about Judaism or Islam, Shintoism or e-Bay to know what precepts of those religions are useful in improv, but I'm sure they're there, as they are in so much secular thought.

History tells us that what we know as theater today evolved from ancient religious practices, from tribal dances and shamanism to passion plays. Improv is just an extension of that, whether or not those practicing it are inclined to admit it. I do know that when I'm in a show that's really rolling, I feel like I'm channeling energy—maybe it's God, maybe it's Ernie Kovacs—rather than creating it. That's a pretty amazing feeling.

Transactors' motto is: If you laugh, we're doing comedy; if you don't, we're doing drama. I think Buddha would have dug that.

-Greg Hohn, Director