One of my brothers had a friend, John, who bought a car one day. When my brother asked him what brand it was, John replied, “Um, it’s a… a Pedros.” It turns out it was a Peugeot. Not remembering what kind of car he bought wasn’t the biggest head-scratcher 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?” Lest I be accused of judging John too harshly, I should add that, based on my experiences in the classroom and theater, I think many of us would plow into a fridge if it were in our way.
In a play I saw an actor drop a glass, which crashed on the floor. Everyone in the audience saw and heard it happen. The actors certainly did—hell, they were standing in it! But neither actor responded to the broken glass because it wasn’t in the script although it was undeniably happening.
People drop glasses fairly frequently in real life and the actors could have just picked up the glass and continued with their lines. The vast majority of the audience wouldn’t have even known that dropping the glass wasn’t in the script. By not responding to the accident the actors demonstrated that they weren’t in the moment of the play and drew attention to the original mistake.
Now, in improv we’re looking and hoping for that dropped glass (even though we don’t use real glasses) because the best improvised scenes seem to happen by accident. That “accident” would be something that’s actually occurring onstage, set within a context, and not just an idea that one of the players is trying to bring to life. So good improvisers strive to be aware of and to respond to everything that happens on stage.
The worst improv scenes often involve players totally missing what’s happening onstage. Ideas and expectations can blind actors to organic developments. Opportunities, 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, indicates that an improviser is in their head rather than present in the scene and 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 props. I’ve seen actors respond to lines that haven’t been said yet. That suggests that the actor is still on the page in the book rather than onstage in the moment and also forces their scene partners out of the moment.
In non-theatrical situations there’s a danger to “not seeing the refrigerator” aside from actually running into refrigerators. I’ve seen presenters so wed to their plans that they can’t adapt to what’s happening around them. This can be as simple as not repeating a word or phrase when a loud noise such as a sneeze 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 courses we do an exercise called Mockery of a Mock Interview. We send an interviewee out of the room and have them return to face an interviewer to whom we have given disturbing or distracting behaviors. Often the interviewees fail to respond to the interviewer and what’s happening. Rather than adapting to the moment, these interviewees plow ahead with what they’ve rehearsed even if it seems not to be working.
However there are those interviewees who will respond to what’s actually happening. If the interviewer keeps looking at their 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 won’t control what’s occurring but at least you’re not a helpless victim of circumstance.
When we discuss this exercise in class, students share horror stories from real-life interviews, ranging from interviewers’ deliberate monopolization of conversations to their turning out the lights and leaving interviewees in the dark! These stories suggest to me that interviewers are more interested in how aware and responsive potential employees are than in the prospects’ backgrounds, which interviewers already know from résumés.
“Look where you want to go” is a motorcycling maxim that’s saved my bacon many times. I think it also applies to everyday life and theater. 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 looking where the road goes and trying to follow it, you’ll probably wind up in that ditch.
“See what you see, not what you think you see,” improv guru Paul Sills used to say and I imagine he’d also apply that to what you think you don’t see. Dwight Eisenhower, who was not an improv guru but rather a general and president, said, “Plans are useless but planning is everything.” Plan to be surprised. Prepare for your plans to be obsolete. Be ready to adapt.
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 in the road.