WRITING IT AS WE GO
I have been meaning to take an improvisation class almost since I returned to singing a few years ago. When I first started back, I felt awkward, stiff and self-conscious. I was easily rattled; if I forgot a phrase or messed up a note, it was hard to get back on track. I felt an improv class would help me to loosen up and think on my feet.
Something always got in the way, though. The class I wanted to take met on a night I worked late, or started when I was going to be out of town, or was too expensive or too late at night.
As you might have surmised, these weren't actually reasons; they were excuses. The real reason I delayed is that I'm a big chicken. The idea of getting up in front of a group of people with no script and no idea what is about to be thrown at me was way too far out of my comfort zone.
My comfort zone has been expanding, though, thanks to singing. And lately others have advised me to test out improvisation for another reason: I have been working on comic songs in class and building silliness into my senior center gigs, and the consensus is that I am really, really funny. (This is not always intentional. As my son says, "You look so sweet and proper, and you say and do the most outrageous things, and it's hilarious." But hey, I'll take it.) I have been advised to explore improv to develop this gift more fully.
So this week I screwed up my courage and reported to my first-ever improv class. The teachers were engaging and supportive, and a lot of the other students were scared, too, which helped.
What helped the most was hearing a fellow student's reason for enrolling in the course: "I write television scripts, and I'm hoping to understand better what works and what doesn't and why."
Of course, I thought. This is really a writing class! Sort of speed-writing flash fiction, but nothing I can't handle.
We didn't create any masterpieces, though we did generate a number of belly laughs. The "plots"--a woman flirting with a bus driver and causing an accident; a marine biologist tripping over a whale on the sidewalk--were interesting in a you-had-to-be-there way. But I think the script writer is on to something. The idea of story is being stripped down to its essentials, and we are starting to learn to construct cohesive narratives, loopy though they may be, through trial and error, with instantaneous feedback.
And it was scary, but also exhilarating. When the teacher shooed us out the door at 9:45--15 minutes over the advertised 3-hour class period, after a long day--I was surprised; I had thought we were about halfway into it. I can't wait to go back.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog, and she is a regular guest panelist on Litopia After Dark. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.