These notes are from an email to an actor, June 2006.

Hi Allison,

Here are some thoughts I had after our last rehearsal, and our discussion of the satisfaction of finding “meaning” from doing the Lake Ivan “Music” work versus the Lake Ivan “Landscape ” work.

(To catch those of you up to speed who have no idea what I’m talking about: the “Landscape” work is a decidedly abstract and texture-oriented form of verbal improvisation, whereas the “Music” work, while also pretty abstract, is a form of verbal improvisation in which groups of ideas, feelings and images are built up in various combinations until they “feel” as if they are meaningfully related, even if it would be impossible to explain clearly what they “mean.” This transcript of an improvised scene is an example of the “Music” work.)

First of all, after the rehearsal, I said that the fact that you found it frustrating and unsatisfying to do the Landscape work probably means that you shouldn’t do it anymore. I’ve changed my mind. I agree that you shouldn’t be doing the Landscape work right now, but I actually think that it would be enormously beneficial for you to tackle it and overcome your problem with it some time in the future. Doing so might be as simple as doing a preparation in which you declare to yourself your intention to fully embrace the Landscape experience. I decided that this would be a particularly important breakthrough for you to have at some point in the future. I also decided that I would like to change the Landscape form, and try to incorporated some of the satisfactions of “meaning” which you found missing from it. These changes would probably result in making the differences between the Music and the Landscape forms smaller.

Meanwhile, I still feel that we should be concentrating for the moment on the Music form. And this set me off thinking about this experience of “meaningfulness” which both of us recognized as one of the main pleasures of the Music form. What is it exactly? (Even though we both kind of knew what you meant when you said it.)

It is not the same kind of experience as when one has a conversation, and feels that the experience is “meaningful” because you come to understand something on a deeper level. It is closely related to this kind of experience, but it is something more elemental.

The special quality of verbal improvisation is that it uses the specificity and clarity of thought which language enables, and harnesses it directly to the intuition, to that place in the self which is the immediate visceral, physical, and emotional source of genius. An audience watching a good verbal improvisation is privileged to watch the spectacle of meaning constantly being born.

Note that, in all forms of performance, the most satisfying, artistically powerful performances are those in which the performer most completely trusts in her intuitive self and allows this instinctive, intuitive self to completely shape her performance. (The same thing holds true in sports.) all great acting, musical performance, and dance has this quality. The greatest musical compositions, plays, and choreography, are those in which each moment has the famous quality of being “inevitable yet surprising” which is the hallmark of a totally organic, intuitive act. When an audience is amazed by a performance, they are invariably amazed because of the amazing degree to which the performer allowed her performance to be exactly what it needed to be, to assume its own perfect form, without interfering with it in any way. This ability to “simply be the performance” is rightly what is thought of as “artistic skill.” Even the ability to play very fast, complicated instrumental passages in music, or to do very difficult balances and steps in dance, is essentially a way of training the body so that neural pathways are opened up to allow an intuitive flow to flow through the performer in a particularly unfettered way.

No wonder I’m fascinated by improvised performance, and specifically verbal improvised performance! This is the only form of performance in which this process, the process of an intuitive flow turning into words and actions, is heightened, highlighted, and in fact is the whole story. An actor in a scripted play, or a musician playing a written score, creates an elaborate simulation of a spontaneous, intuitive flow. As a viewer of an improvisation, I get to watch an authentic act of intuition-becoming-action taking place before my eyes. As a listener to a verbal improvisation, I accumulate myriad verbal details throughout the performance. Because the actors are following a discipline of feeling as much connectedness as they possibly can from moment to moment, these verbal details will inevitably accumulate more and more connectedness throughout the piece, creating an elating sense in the viewer of greater and greater “meaningfulness.”

Now, as the performer, I experience this meaningfulness a little differently. As the performer, the success of my performance depends on my ability to completely trust and merge with my intuitive self, or, in the typical terms of our technique, to “feel the flow of the piece.” The more completely I feel that flow, with every part of my being, the more I’ll be able to let all the “meaning” part of the piece take care of itself: specifically, the choices of words and actions, which, thanks to my heightened state of awareness, will automatically assemble themselves into a much more meaningful whole than would be possible if I were merely trying to “think of things to say.” The audience is situated a bit outside of the piece and is therefore able to appreciate the aesthetics of a well-turned phrase. From their perspective, they are able to intellectually appreciate how the outer form of the piece (the language) is deeply connected to the inner feeling of it. This connectedness is what makes it seem meaningful to them. As the performer, I strive to experience the piece completely from the inside. That means, for me, the meaningfulness isn’t an experience of repeatedly “awakening” or intermittently making more or less conscious connections between my intellect and my emotions, but is more an experience of greater and greater connectedness on all levels, which, because my technique demands that I experience the piece fully and continuously, tends to be a continuously growing feeling of meaningfulness.

As I live through the experience of the piece, my technique demands that I continuously feel everything I can possibly feel, using language and silence as a tool, and that I constantly open myself up to feel it even more completely. This means that, as the piece goes on, I feel more and more fully connected to my scene partner, to my surroundings, to the external world, and to all of my intuitive knowledge of everything. Thus, if I’m doing a good job, I will experience this sense of being more and more utterly connected to everything via my intuition as a feeling of greater and greater meaningfulness. The fact that I’m experiencing this connectedness specifically through language means that my intellectual, verbal self doesn’t feel “left out” of the experience, something which is very important to a verbal and analytical person such as myself. But, for once, I won’t be experiencing the language by “thinking about” what it is saying: the technique allows me to have the experience of directly feeling the language, as a visceral, physical and emotional experience which my body registers as a whole. In other words, my verbal self has become completely connected to my whole, intuitive self. There is no outside; everything is inside. This is a special, privileged experience of meaningfulness, and it explains why, for a person like me, performing provides an experience which simply watching a performance, even a great performance, cannot.

This experience of meaningfulness, of connectedness, and of wholeness, is nourishing to the soul, as food is nourishing to the body. Meaninglessness, the feeling that everything is useless and disconnected, and that one is hopelessly isolated and alone, is as painful as extreme physical hunger is. That is why you and I crave the experience of meaningfulness that comes from verbal improvisation. Therefore, this is one more way of understanding the reason that desire is the best engine to drive one through the improvisation.

When you do a preparation for an improv, and you say to yourself: “being inside of the flow of the piece is intensely pleasurable. I will continually open myself up so that I feel that pleasure more and more fully,” you are referring to the pleasure of being more and more connected to everything on an energy level, which is indeed a deeply physical kind of pleasure, regardless of whether or not the “content” of the scene is about something pleasurable at any given moment. Dedicate yourself to experiencing as much of this pleasure as you possibly can, and you and your audience will be rewarded by an experience which feels more and more richly meaningful with each moment.