Creating Space

We need space to improvise. Improvising becomes exponentially more difficult if the space is filled with thinking, planning or talking. Mostly these occur because we are scared of space. Many of us fear silence, the unknown and simply being. It’s challenging for us to believe that our presence is enough for the audience or that we can be in relationship with our scene partner without saying anything.

Like dancing, music or writing, without space, without the pauses, there is no dance, no song, no story. Improv in particular thrives in space because if we fill up the space with thinking and planning, nothing new or original can occur. I would a say that as improvisers, it is our job to cultivate space and then harvest what grows there. What’s so magical about improv is that the more we improvise, the more space we create.

If you’re like me, you probably have a lot going on in your life. I’m very fortunate to have a home, partner, a kid and pets. I homeschool my son, I take improv and acting classes, I perform, I teach classes, I play volleyball and I volunteer at our local park. I’m very grateful that I get to do all these things I enjoy. And I can make myself VERY BUSY. This fall, my schedule was packed. I was running around all over the place to do as many of these things as I could fit into my calendar. One thing to the next. This schedule was of my own making, so it seemed ridiculous to complain and stress about it. Nonetheless, there I was, unsatisfied with my full schedule of amazing things I loved to do.

I began to get curious about my scheduling. I joked that I need to fire my Scheduler and I did, but she quickly snuck back into her job. I wanted to free up space in my schedule, but I kept unconsciously filling it up. I wondered what my unconscious motivation was? First, I want to be good at these things that I do. In particular, I want to master improv and I know that it takes lots practice to master anything. Second, I don’t want to have to choose. Somewhere along the way I decided that to be the best at something, I would have to give up everything else and focus solely on that one thing. When I was 12 I gave up dance to play softball and missed dance terribly. After 10 years of playing both softball and volleyball I finally gave up softball my junior year in college, but not to focus on volleyball, but to pursue a study abroad in marine biology. I always felt behind and second best to those who devoted their time year-round to playing just one sport. Even now, as peers from my improv classes audition for shows and take every opportunity they can to perform, I feel like I’m falling behind. But I HATE having to choose between things that I love and I love doing a variety of things.

I’ve created a mental story that keeps me from getting what I want. Choose to focus on one thing and become a master, but give up the variety and other things I love OR choose the variety and all that I love and fall behind my peers and maybe never become a master at anything. The epitome of between a rock and a hard place. The legendary “either-or” situation. Black or white. I’ve consistently chosen the latter and accepted that bitter taste of slight dissatisfaction. I’ve played this story out many times over the last few decades, so now I’m asking, what else is possible?

I’ve been looking at my time as blocks in my calendar. I see it as rigid and unrelenting. Time is a tool to be used, squeezed, manipulated, controlled and beaten into a schedule that gets me as much of what I want as possible. My schedule is a puzzle and time is an obstacle in my way of solving it. I can’t create a new story with time in this same old mindset.

Getting curious, I asked, hmmm… I wonder how I can improvise with time and my schedule in ways that are deeply satisfying? It seems impossible to create time, but I KNOW I can create space. As I create more space, my perception of time changes and become irrelevant. I do this by being in the moment and improvising. I have no idea what the answer to this questions is… that’s the point of wondering. An excellent wonder question creates a space where something unknown to me can emerge.

Shortly after I began wondering about this lots of spontaneously enjoyable things began to happen. A new friend and I found lots of time to hang out after months of trying to plan a get together. After months of trying to find a date to perform together, an improv peer and I spontaneously got to go on stage together. Things that I hadn’t even known I wanted started presenting themselves along with all the means and support to do them. You probably know what it’s like to have things spontaneously work out. Deeply satisfying.

My old story still lingers though. Stories tend to repeat – especially either-or, black or white stories – when I’m scared. Am I scared of space? I didn’t think so, but if I look at the result – my calendar – I see that I’m fleeing opportunities to create space. I tell myself that nothing happens in space, that I don’t get closer to what I want, to mastering improv. Interesting. I started this blog saying that we need space to improvise. This is a reminder that I can know something intellectually, but until I disrupt my old story and make space inside me for something new, I won’t actually embody it.

My new possibility is that part of my journey to mastering improv includes practicing creating space – anywhere in my life. I wonder how space catalyzes the mastery of anything we’re practicing?

What is your relationship with space and time? What stories do you tell yourself about them? I invite you to wonder and question any story that has a flavor of either-or, black or white, or “rock and a hard place”. Find what makes you feel spacious and practice that.

If you want to experience how improv can cultivate space in your life, check out my upcoming events on my homepage. We gather monthly to practice presence and connect through play in our free drop in class. Beginning in February we’ll use spacious wonder questions as inspiration for our Improvising With Life Lab monthly series. In the Lab, we ask big life questions and then play with them through improv exercises and mind-body centering practices. Register for all four Improvising With Life Labs by February 9th, 2020 and receive a discount, or drop into each individually.

Beyond Right and Wrong

What takes you out of a scene?

I asked myself this question the other day. I wondered, what causes me to lose presence where some part of me is no longer aware of what’s happening in the moment. One of my improv teachers called it “leaving the room”.

I’m doing it wrong. That was the first thing that came to me. Whenever I think I’m doing something wrong, I scare myself and retreat in some way.

They’re doing it wrong. When I judge by scene partner missed some rule or made some improv faux pas I again get scared and lose a moment, or many moments of presence.

I need to do it right. Ah, yes. If only I could do it exactly right then I’ll never do it wrong and the above scenarios won’t happen. Intellectually, I can giggle at the absurdity of this and yet, unconsciously, I do it frequently!

I don’t know about you, but this right/wrong story has been running my life for as far back as I can remember and not just in improv scenes. The beauty of improv is that we set a new context beyond the story of right and wrong. We say, “there’s no way to do this wrong”. Of course our brains laugh and we secretly try to do it right anyway. Which is why I enjoy purposely playing it out “wrong” first, just so our brains see that even if we do it “wrong”, it’s okay.

So the next question isn’t, “How do I always stay present in my scene?” Ha! No way, forget it. I drift off trying to think of a clever thing to say, or remember what just happened so I can make a neat connection. Or I wish I hadn’t just said that thing I just said. The real question is,

How do I reliably get back into the scene? When I noticed I’ve “left the room”, what can I do to reenter with ease?

Notice my body, a sensation or feeling. This is the number one way I get back to NOW. My body is always experiencing in the present moment so I join it by noticing something happening in my body. Often I’ll simply feel my feet on the floor.

Look at my partner, make eye contact. When I take in something about what my scene partner is doing or how they are standing or their facial expression, I bring myself back to the present and connect with them.

Interact with space. In improv we call this “object work”: Interacting with some imaginary object in space. It’s funny because the object isn’t actually “here” and yet all of your focus must be on that space at that time in order to truly interact with it. This one took me some time, but has become a reliable way for me to ground myself in my scene.

When I do these things, something magical happens… I find my inspiration, because inspiration is in the moment.

Improv is not about being clever, knowledgeable or quick-witted, it’s about being HERE.

And it’s a damn fun way to practice being here if you ask me. Let’s practice together.

I would love for you to join me this October 8, 15, 22, and 29th for an improv course in West Seattle. We will meet from 7-9pm at the Fauntleroy Schoolhouse near the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal. RSVP today!

Play on!

Dhira

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”   -Rumi