For the last few years I have been exhorting company members, students, and myself to “explore” rather than “invent” while improvising. This is only an original idea in so far as we all learn things in a subjective way and in our own time.

Paul Sills, the original Second City director and late improv icon, was the first to introduce me to the distinction between invention and exploration a decade ago. He referred to invention as “playwriting.” More recently, in a workshop with Michael Gellman, the current Second City director, the concept was explained for me and others more thoroughly, although it took me a couple of years to grasp it fully and utilize it.

One way to look at invention is as ego-based. Someone had an idea in their head and they set about to make it a reality. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact I’m writing on a device that is an invention and that depends on a countless series of inventions.

Or maybe they weren’t inventions exactly. Perhaps someone had an intuition about something and they followed that, perhaps in collaboration with others, until this exploration led to a discovery of some process or product.

Invention has its place, no doubt. Writers utilize it just as they do exploration. In the former they might articulate an idea, while in the latter they ‘just write’ and see what comes out on the paper. Usually, writing is a combination of the two processes.

In improvisational theater, at least in Transactors, we’re looking to explore in a collaborative process. When you’re working with others, there is a temptation to impose your ideas-your inventions-on them. It might be as unwieldy as trying to act out a gag that’s in your head (but not in your partners’; a sad path I trudged many times in my early improv years), or it might be relatively innocuous, such as “Get me a glass of lemonade, please.”

The bigger the invention, the bigger problem you’re going to run into with it. If you have an idea what the entire scene is ‘supposed’ to be like, you’ll spend all your effort trying to impose that expectation onto your partner(s) and the scene, thus missing all the treasures that are waiting to be discovered. To students who want to impose their full-fledged ideas on a scene, I suggest, “Write a play.” I might well add that they can make up for steamrolling their improv partners by casting them in that play.

Expectations can hang you up as any good Zen Buddhist can tell you. I could write on that topic, but I feel compelled to share something pianist Robert Griffin once told me. Robert has worked with Transactors, is currently gigging with Squirrel Nut Zippers, and is a fine musician in his own right. He once told me that he’ll go into his studio with an idea of what he wants to do and he’ll get frustrated because it doesn’t happen according to his expectations. But later he’ll listen to what he did and he’ll realize that what he did ‘accidentally’ was better than what he had planned to do.

There is a fine line between too much and not enough invention in improv and you could have a good long argument about, just as you could about concepts such as denial, identification, and so on. At what point does impulse become invention? The answer is “Yes.” Or “Blue.” Or “Alan Page, 1971.”

The farthest I’ve gone with exploring exploration is what I call “tabula rasa” or “blank slate” improv. The notion here is that the players in a scene respond only to their partner. They aren’t focusing so much on what they’re doing or where the scene is going, but rather on making ‘you’ statements and letting the scene go where it will.

People get scared of doing nothing but responding. It is so much safer to stay within the realm of one’s own familiar thoughts. But it’s remarkable what can happen when they give into response and exploration. Players are connected and get along well. There is an absurdist aspect to what transpires. Rather than chasing down and slaying the gist of a scene, players sit back and watch the scene deliver itself to them. It’s magic.

Exploration is also not all that’s needed to perform entertaining improv. However, actors who work with tabula rasa report finding themselves more open to ideas, emotions, and games that arise out of scenes or that are hidden in them. They’re more aware of and open to their partners. With their partners they are able to create something that is greater than their own ideas, their own minds, their own egos.

Exploration is essentially an exponential creative process and it has applications to just about every group effort you can imagine. It’s tough, because it requires the sublimation of the ego to a greater cause or idea, but the reward is the glory and satisfaction of doing something well, something somehow unfamiliar to and greater than you.

It might be a successful marketing campaign in which all the participants contribute ideas and support. In basketball it might be an easy field goal created by unselfish screens and passes. Or it might be an improv scene that is simply remarkable.
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