Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must first be overcome.
“I was just about to do that.”
There are fewer words I care less to hear in rehearsal or class. It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for an actor or a student in the midst of an improv scene or activity. I do. Hell, I have sympathy for myself. Nothing matters less, however, than, “I was just about to do that.” If you were just about to do it, then why aren’t you doing it now?
Often, I believe, players will say they were just about to do something out of simple defensiveness. Improv can be frustrating. Not knowing what to do can make us tense. But the classroom and rehearsal are there so that we can make mistakes. We should make mistakes in the learning process.
I’ve always liked that old saw about learning more from mistakes than successes. Once we open ourselves to the possibility of failure — indeed if we invite it into learning — we reduce the stress created by the compulsion to be right. If we acknowledge that we can be wrong or really stink up the room in some activity, then we are more open to learning.
So when someone says, “I was just about to do that,” I want to respond, “I don’t expect you to know. If you did then you’d have no reason to have me as a teacher.” Really, the defensive aspect of saying you were just about to do something is either (a) saying you already know or (b) blaming the instructor for being impatient. As a child I was a know-it-all. Okay, I still am. But when I was a kid, “I know” was my default response to any correction or new information. I try to avoid saying “I know” now. It’s just not important. And please don’t blame the instructor for trying to get you not to waste your time.
Moving beyond the defensive response we get into a more mysterious area when considering why players don’t act on an impulse. If you know what to do then why aren’t you doing it? Often a player will state that she was waiting for her scene partner to do or say something first. Well, what if what the player is waiting for doesn’t happen? A brilliant and relevant impulse may be left to wither on the vine. Other times a player might say s/he was waiting to use the impulse later in the scene. But considering that one can’t really know where a scene is going, it is again folly to believe that one will be able to use the impulse later.
At other times a player might want to be sure s/he is doing the ‘right’ thing and waits for more information. That is a sensible approach to many things but it doesn’t fit in improv because an improv scene doesn’t exist until it happens. It is unlike a written piece or even a planned scenario in that respect. It is this very quality that makes an improv scene about what it is as it evolves. Gee, I really didn’t like the way that sentence came out. So let me put it this way; if you have a strong, relevant impulse, the scene will be about that if you will only express the impulse and let the scene develop. The only sure way to do the ‘right’ thing in improv is to follow the impulse and the time to follow the impulse is now.
Of course, as in all aspects of improv — if not life in general — here is an issue of balance here. While one must recognize and act upon the impulse (and I use the term “impulse” because “idea” suggests more of a fully formed and conscious thought than the intuitive-based impulse), it is also crucial to check whether or not the contribution is needed. For example, if you and your partner have already set up some sort of game within a scene and that’s going well, it might be counterproductive to follow the impulse of starting a completely different game or to introduce an element that doesn’t fit in the scene. How do you recognize what’s appropriate? You develop that sense through experience. In order to gain useful experience you have to practice and fail a lot.
Before starting to gauge how or if an impulse fits, first get in the habit of following the impulse. This is the key and its applications reach far beyond improv. Following the impulse is the brainstorming ideal. Get the thoughts, feelings, and hunches out there and see what happens. Those things are like ore and even though there will be some tailings from the smelting process, it’s all part of the process leading to the refined product.
This process can be used in writing, painting, music, marketing, coaching, strategizing, or countless other endeavors. Following the impulse requires courage initially because we are so beholden to the need to be correct. Getting past that need, by taking risks and following intuition, allows us to take a longer view and to go from being correct to being brilliant.
Find a way to practice following your impulses. Focus on now. Practice it because it is a skill one can lose.
A powerful question that has been asked many times is, “If not now, when?” It’s been used in political as well as personal situations. It can be applied to everything from voting rights to commitment to a relationship. The individual can ask that question about starting that novel or that exercise regimen or acting classes or that business. If not now, not only when, but why not now? What are you waiting for?
Now is what makes improv what it is because improv happens in the moment. As it is perhaps the most important or distinguishing component in improv, now may well also be improv’s most important lesson.