A common mistake is to enter into an improvised scene with the idea that the problem of improvisation is the problem of performing without a script, and that, therefore, when you have “come up with an idea” which “works” that you have somehow solved the problem.

The reason that this is a mistake is that once you decide, with tremendous relief, that you “know what the scene is,” and that it’s just a matter of “playing it out,” you cut yourself off from listening to the intuitive flow of feelings which is the true source of the scene, and the scene goes dead.

I’ll give a musical example, drawn from my own experiences playing improvised music for dance classes.

It might seem as if, in dance class, when a teacher shows an exercise or a combination of steps to the students, that the musician’s job is to “come up with something to play which will work with those dance steps.” Even if I avoid the grossly obvious pitfall of trying to force myself to think of a musical idea before I begin to play, I may still be overly influenced by my anxiety about “the need to find an idea.” Thus, when it becomes clear, as it always does, within the first few moments of playing, that I actually do have an idea, and that it’s a very good idea which goes with the dance steps quite well, my anxiety is relieved. I feel tempted to relax, to say to myself “Ah, I have solved the problem. Now I have a good idea to work with, and all I have to do is continue to play this music until the exercise is over.”

The result, inevitably, is that the music congeals into a frozen idea of music, and loses its ability to grow, develop, respond to changes from the dancers. It goes dead. All of this happens because I have dropped my sense that I must actively listen, actively open myself to the intuitive sources of the music.

Similarly, if two actors are asked to improvise a narrative scene, without a preset scenario, they may mistakenly believe that the challenge of the scene is to come up with a good idea. Once they begin the scene, and they both realize that they have collectively come up with the idea that the scene is about Sally and her husband Jeff, who are arguing about whether or not to go out to dinner, they may both relax, greatly relieved that they have accomplished the task of finding a good idea. They tell themselves that the only thing they have to do now is to play out the rest of the scene. From that point on, the scene is stuck in Sally-and-Jeff-argue-about-the-restaurant, and all chances that it might grow and deepen into something beyond this scenario are lost. Furthermore, the scene loses the feeling of real-life-being-discovered-each-moment, and instead settles into a clichéd set of secondhand notions about married people having an argument.

One can avoid this mistake by having a clearer idea of what an improvisation really is, and what the task of the improviser actually entails.

Instead of thinking, as you enter the scene, that the problem is to come up with a good idea, try imagining (as described elsewhere in this blog) that the scene you’re about to perform is one that already exists in its perfect form, and that your task is actually to open yourself up and experience this scene.

Furthermore, the scene itself is not an “idea” for a scene at all, but an organically felt flow of feelings and energy, which lies underneath the surface of the scene. So your actual challenge is not to come up with an idea, but to continually open yourself and allow yourself to feel this flow of energy which is the actual source of the scene. It is a task which you must keep performing from the first moment of the scene to the last.

In my musical example, this means that I recognize that the real “music” does not consist of the notes, the chord structure, or the melodic structure. The real music is the emotional and kinetic, rhythmic feeling which will underlie both the sounds from the piano and the dancers’ movements. My task is not to think of a musical idea, but, by using my fingers on the keyboard, to continually open myself up, allowing myself to connect with this musical energy in a fuller and fuller way. The result? It will still be true that a clear, appropriate musical “idea” will quickly become apparent in what I am playing. But this idea, instead of remaining frozen because I have settled into it, will continue to grow, develop, and become stronger. When it organically needs to change into a different idea, it will do so. It will be alive.

In the case of the narrative scene, the two actors can also keep the scene alive by imagining that the scene they are about to play already exists in its ideal form. Furthermore, the scene itself is not an “idea” for a scene, and it does not consist of what the actors will actually do or say. Rather, the scene is an organically felt flow of feelings which lie underneath the words and the actions. The job of the two actors is to open themselves up to this flow of feelings, more and more fully, throughout the scene.

This means that, like the audience, all new information they discover about the scene is provisional, and is constantly being deepened and broadened. They may well discover, by opening themselves to the flow-of-feelings-which-is-the-scene, that the scene indeed turns out to be about a husband and wife named Sally and Jeff, and that the two of them are indeed arguing about going out. But the actors’ task is not over. The task of continually opening themselves up, and, by intuitive feeling, learning more and more about the scene, goes on throughout the scene. As the scene continues, they (and the audience) will learn more and more about who Sally and Jeff are, if they are indeed really having an argument, and, if so, what it’s all about. Everything is provisional and subject to revision. The scene continually grows, gets deeper, and takes the audience further on a journey into the world of Sally and Jeff. The details of the scene are filled with precise, intuitive knowledge, rather than clichéd notions. The scene is alive.