In the arena of improvisational theatre, Johnstone’s assessment may be a primary truth. In the arena of real life, though, another, deeper truth about no-sayers and yes-sayers emerges. By saying “yes” to what is – accepting reality – and wondering about, rather than fearing the future, we can experience more healing. Johnstone proposes that we no-sayers can learn to say “yes,” and my own life is a hopeful testament to this possibility.
I discovered improvisation during a truly terrible time in my life. An abusive relationship had ended, and the dividing of our mutually owned property and assets was festering in the courts. My suffering was evident to everyone. A wise friend suggested that, in addition to my therapy and support group, I might benefit from having some fun. She encouraged me to attend an improvisation class. I did and my life changed forever.
At first I was terrified. The other students were much younger extroverts with a knack for comedy. Many were actors interested in improving their performance skills. I was the only sad, frightened introvert seeking healing. The first few classes I cowered in the corner, hoping with all my strength that the teacher wouldn’t call on me to participate in an exercise in front of the class. He didn’t. After the third class, as I walked alone down the stairs of the studio, I heard that judgmental little voice inside my head proclaiming firmly and sarcastically, “Well, you’re certainly getting your money’s worth out of this, aren’t you!?” That awareness was all I needed to propel me into participating fully in the class; and as my friend predicted, it was such fun!
The camaraderie among classmates, the hilarity, and the laughter facilitated the first level of healing that I experienced. The class raised my energy and resurrected my joy. Soon, though, I began to notice that the principles of improvisation resembled spiritual qualities I had studied in theology classes, practiced through prayer and meditation, and aspired to integrate into my life. I discovered through experience that all of the qualities embodied in the practice of improvisation could lead me to healing.
The reason that improvisation surprises us with its healing potential is because we think that this creative drama craft is about comedy and performance and being outrageously clever or quick-witted. But it’s not. At its core, improvisation is about being obvious, and saying or doing the next logical thing; it’s about being authentic; it’s about exploring what it means to be human.
My efforts to heal from my failed relationship led me to the revelations of improvisation and helped me see my life patterns of resistance and control. Previously, in my no-saying life, I used will, skill, and power, trying to make situations fit my preferences when I didn’t like or want what was happening. When resistance is implemented in an improvised scene, it’s called “blocking the offer.” This is the realm of no-saying – where scared improvisers seek safety – and it inevitably leads to a very bad scene. The awareness of my resistance became indisputable (even to me) during a class scene when my partner said: “I’ve dropped my contact lens on the floor.” I blocked her and substituted my will for how the scene should unfold. “Oh no,” I replied. “It’s probably still in your eye. Let me look.” Then, I moved closer to have a look in her eye.
Even in a class during a theatre game, I couldn’t accept the reality my partner had described – that she dropped her contact lens. If I had accepted and advanced her offer by making the obvious response, I would have said, “Yikes! Contact on the Floor! I’m afraid to move!” Then my partner would have felt heard, and possibly an interesting scene would have evolved. What happened instead was conflict. “No,” she said angrily in response to my insistence that it was still in her eye, “I dropped it.” Then she pushed me away.
After coming face to face with my pattern of no-saying that night, my life changed. Over the past nine years, I have passed this healing through improvisation onto thousands of students in my classes all across the country, mainly through programs offered by Healing Moments™, the non-profit organization I founded for dementia caregiver education. (www.healingmoments.org) And now, the practice of communicating and connecting using improvisation techniques is going mainstream – for caregivers of persons with dementia as well as for other therapeutic applications.
Once I integrated the “first rule of improvisation,” which is to make your scene partner look good, into my daily interactions, I realized that this life-changing craft of improvisation has the potential to spring us into a future that overflows with healing.
Although I may not yet be “perfectly OK” with the unknown future, as my diploma from ImprovBoston proclaims, this recovering no-sayer is now more curious than I am afraid about what is yet to be revealed!