Reading Patricia Ryan Madson’s book improv wisdom is like taking a walk in a traditional Chinese garden. You can make a stop anywhere and there’s always something intriguing for you to look at. This little book of merely 159 pages is so full of gems. It is one of the books that have changed my outlook toward life.
Madson has been a drama teacher for many years. For her, “a successful life involves both planning and improvising.” She sees the similarities between improvisation and life. She believes that the principles and techniques of improvisation could help us expanding our vision of life, and with that we could be more open to possibilities, and do more of the things that matter to us. Life is rarely scripted. Would you agree? It is “something we make up as we go along.” We are all improvisers here and there and from time to time. I like the way Madson introduces the improvisation. She says, “improvisation has nothing to do with wit, glibness, or comic ability. A good improviser is someone who is awake, not entirely self-focused, and moved by a desire to do something useful and give something back and who acts upon this impulse.”
Here are some of Madson’s ideas that I particularly like.
·Substitute “yes and” for “yes but”. For those of us trained in science and engineering, the ability to plan and to make critical judgment is so important. It is very hard not to think about the opposite and the alternatives. The “yes and” idea was shocking for me. Instead of finding faults and being argumentative, can I imagine trying once just to agree, accept, notice what is right, not what is wrong, assume what is presented to me is a good enough idea to start with,and then work hard to add to the idea in a positive direction? Could I just give whatever idea I hear or I think of at the moment a chance to develop and not to filter it out immediately with my experiences and beliefs? “Yes but” is perhaps one of the most familiar phrases we hear every day. Maybe unconsciously we don’t want to give up control, either toward others or toward our own future. We want to be so certain about the outcome before we act or support an idea. When was the last time you heard yourself saying “yes but”? Maybe you were excited about the possibility of doing something, then your mind immediately turned against you, “yes, but here are a few conditions that make it impractical.” The “yes and” mindset nudges us in the direction of building on someone’s ideas or dreams, including our own, even though the success is not guaranteed. However, as Madson points out, saying “yes” without “and” is a form of aggression. From this, I finally understood a criticism I got a few times since my early 20s. That is I asked too many questions. The point is not about the questions I asked. It is the sin I committed by saying “yes” but not “and”. I kept asking probe questions to get the other person to talk but I didn’t volunteer my own ideas, interests, or hobbies.
·Attention instead of preparation. Madson insisted that attention is far more important than preparation. We already have what it takes to start doing whatever we want to do or need to do. “All our past experiences prepared us for this moment.” If we trust ourselves and pay close attention to what is happening moment by moment, not to be distracted by what has happened or what might happen, we will find that we do have the ideas, words, and talents whenever we really need them. Sometimes planning and preparation could become a form of procrastination. I believe this idea works just as well for people contemplating mid-career changes as for people working with small kids.I can testify the later. I used to read one book after another to compile a list of activities for my once in a while bored kids. Often when I most needed the ideas, the list was not handy. I ended up listening to their whining and fighting screams till my hair standing up. Now I force myself to use Madson’s attention to this moment idea. My kids must enjoy being with me a lot more, judging from the excuses they try to make up to stay at home with me. Madson points out that our attention determines our experience. When we are self-conscious, we might experience fear and tension. The best way to get out of that is to redirect our focus outward, noticing the details around us and doing what needs to be done in the context. Paying attention also means doing one thing at time. For example, when we are with people, instead of thinking about what to say next, we listen totally and we try to remember their names and faces.
·Action. Emotions are not the best guide for action. To make sure we stay on course, Madson suggests us to ask “What is my purpose now?” not “what do I feel like doing?” We all have a unique gift and she asks “What would not get done if I were not here?” As long as we know our purpose, Madson tells us to just show up and act now. Sometimes our physical presence is the most important first step. We can start anywhere with something that is the most obvious to us. We don’t need to strive for perfection or originality. Just being average is good enough. What seems to be apparent to us might be useful or even a revelation to others. Action is a way of discovery. Often after we start doing something, we have a more realistic perspective and we can evaluate ideas better at that point. Madson also mentions that, in a group setting, when something needs to be done and we have the ability to do it, it’s better just to do it and not to think about and argue whose job it is.
·Adversity. Life is not always smooth and pleasant. However, it is the struggle and balancing in the face of instability that makes us feel more alive. How do we develop higher tolerance against life’s inherent instability? How do we “work skillfully, kindly, respectively with difficult people?” What about mistakes we make?Madson encourages us to see the reality as it is and not to dwell on what is not. In challenging situations, she recommends that we write down pure facts and details without judgment and emotions and then go from there. As for mistakes, Madson asks us to collect them. A mistakes is sometimes simply an unexpected outcome.We should just “notice it, acknowledge it, and use it.” Instead of asking “How on earth did I do that?” Why not focus on what comes next? We can ask “What can I make of this?” The goal in dealing with adversities and mistakes is always resilience and perseverance.
·Interdependence. In improvising, Madson says, “Safety lies in knowing your partner will go along with whatever idea you present.” To help us notice and appreciate interdependence, Madson encourages us to ask “what had I received from others during my life?”, “What had I given back to them?”, and “What trouble or bother had I cause them?” She wants us to nurture gratitude and practice giving thanks with details. The support and encouragement we give each other are some of the most precious gifts if we view them as so. Madson asks us “doing things in a kind way and doing kind things”. Why not “offer a pleasing face”, “encouraging eyes”, and smile? Why not share controls and try to make our partners look good?
Madson listed and elaborated on 13 maxims for improvisation. “Say yes”, “Don’t prepare”, “Just show up”, “Start anywhere”, “Be average”, “Pay attention”, “Face the facts”, “Stay on course”, “Wake up to the gifts”, “Make mistakes, please”, “Act now”, “Take care of each other”, “Enjoy the ride” There are many “try this” sections for each of the maxims. I especially appreciate two of the interesting games and one exercise I picked up in “try this” sections. The first game is to invent a proverb together. A member of the group starts the sentence with one word. The next person adds one more word that seems logical at the moment. Then next and next till the sentence is finished. Look at what you’ve got. Another game is to gather a group of friends and randomly pick a daily object. Go around the room and ask each person the question “What is the use of this object?” For the great exercise, try for a day or a week, pick a person, say, your spouse or your colleague, and find something right about everything he/she says or does.