One of my brothers had a friend, John, who bought a car many years ago. When my brother asked him what kind of car he bought, John replied, “Um, it’s a… a Pedros.” It turns out that it was a Peugeot. Not remembering what brand of automobile he bought wasn’t the dumbest thing John ever did though.
No, that might have been totaling his Pedros. One night he was driving on a highway when he saw a refrigerator in his lane. He drove right into it. Asked why he didn’t avoid the appliance, John reasoned, “Why would there be a refrigerator on the freeway?”
People usually respond with incredulous laughter when I tell this story. And yet, based on my experiences in the theater and the classroom, I think there are more than a few of us who, but for the grace of God, would also plow into a fridge were it in our way.
In one play I saw, an actor dropped a glass, which crashed upon the floor. Everyone in the audience saw it happen. The actors certainly saw and heard it–hell, they were standing in it! But neither responded to it because it wasn’t in the script. True, it wasn’t in the plan but it was undeniably happening.
Glasses drop in ‘real’ life fairly frequently and the actors could have just picked up the glass and continued with the script. Their failure to respond to the accident demonstrated that they weren’t in the moment of the play even if the moment wasn’t what they expected.
Now, in improv we’re looking and hoping for that dropped glass. That would be something that’s actually happening and not just an idea that one of the players is trying to bring to life. We don’t play with glasses (or any props for that matter); rather, we strive to respond to what we see and hear. So we pay attention to what’s going on and to our partners and respond to that.
The best improvised scenes seem to happen by accident. They’re about what is actually occurring onstage and the dynamic between and among the players set within a context.
Conversely, the worst scenes often involve players totally missing what’s happening onstage and with their fellow improvisers. Ideas and expectations tend to blind actors to things that are actually taking place. Gifts and offers, some of which are obvious to the audience, are ignored as players try to impose their will upon a scene. Missing these offers, these accidents, is a sure sign to me that an improviser is in his or her head rather than present in the scene and the moment.
Actors in scripted works can also be guilty of being in their heads and not in the moment, even when they’re not dropping glasses or other fragile props. I have seen actors start to respond to lines that haven’t been said yet. That reveals that the actor is still essentially on the page in the book rather than onstage in the moment. Additionally it prevents other actors from being in the moment. One actor cannot be in the moment if another onstage isn’t. Where is this actor if not in the moment?!
There is a danger to “not seeing the refrigerator” in real life aside from actually running into refrigerators.
I have seen presenters so wed to their plans that they cannot adapt to their surroundings. This can be as simple as not repeating a word or phrase when a loud noise such as a sneeze or something mechanical overpowers the speech. Or it can take the form of responding to a question with a “canned” answer that winds up being irrelevant or even inappropriate.
In my business-school courses we occasionally do mock interviews by sending the interviewee out of the room and having him/her return to face an interviewer to whom we have given three or four annoying or nasty behaviors. Over and over we see the interviewees fail to respond to what is going on or to adapt to it. Rather than respond to the moment, some of the interviewees plow ahead with what they have rehearsed.
However, there are those who will respond to what’s happening in the moment. If the interviewer keeps looking at his/her watch, the interviewee might say something like, “I see you’re checking the time. Would another time be better for us to meet?” How cool! By being in the moment you can respond to it assertively and adapt to it. You may not control it but at least you are not a helpless victim of circumstance.
Many of my business students then share horror stories from interviews, ranging from interviewers’ deliberate monopolization of conversations to turning out the lights and leaving interviewees in the dark! This suggests to me that many employers are much more interested in how aware potential employees are and how they respond than they are in these prospects’ backgrounds, which employers already know from resumes.
As a corollary to driving, theater, and real life, I would say that you will tend to go where you look. So if you’re paying attention to what’s happening right now, you can respond to it, just as you would to the curves in a road. If you go straight when the road curves, you’re probably not heading for a good outcome. And if you’re staring at the ditch, afraid you’re going to wipe out, instead of eyeing where the road goes and trying to follow it, where do you suppose you’ll wind up?
“See what you see, not what you think you see,” Paul Sills, the famous improv director, has told his students for years. To that I would add, hear what you hear, not what you think you hear.
Dwight Eisenhower, who was not, to my knowledge, into improv, said, “Plans are useless but planning is essential.” I take that to mean make preparing to respond part of your preparation. Prepare for your plans to be obsolete. Plan to be surprised.
It’s like those road signs that warn, “Be prepared to stop.” Shouldn’t we always be prepared to stop?
After all, there might be a refrigerator ahead.