Thursday, November 29, 2012

Beginnings and endings

In the beginning...there were no pencils, or typewriters, or laptops, or iPads... But there were stories. Always stories. And where there are stories, there are storytellers.

We are all, in a sense, the writers of our own life stories - and writing stories on the spot is exactly what we do in improv. I think of the improv audience a little bit like the universe. They are the unknown element each night, throwing things at us, seeing how we cope. Some are kind, some want to challenge us. We have two choices: we can clam up in fear and produce crap results, or we can focus on the present moment, go with the flow and create something amazing.

Someone in my troupe recently asked me how a scene should begin. There are a couple of tricks you can use to start an improv scene. For example, you can start in the middle of a sentence or thought with a word like "and" or "but". Some of the most interesting scenes have no real beginning and end. Why do you think that is? I think it's because that's how life works. We like to think life has a tidy beginning and end, with perfectly choreographed pit stops along the way. When that (inevitably) doesn't happen, we get bummed out, depressed, confused. But it's often the road blocks, the small moments along the way that make us stop and watch, listen, concentrate.

Another way to begin a scene is just to start doing something physical. Even if you don't know what you're doing, something will come to you. This planet is always moving, which is why we get so impatient when we're stuck in a line, or in traffic, or in a personal situation. It's natural for us to want to keep moving, keep going forward, move the scene along. So move! And the rest will come.

Another question I get asked often is, "How do we end a scene"? Again, too often we think life is linear. We are born, we live, we die. Somewhere in my mind I tell myself a perfect life span is 0 to 100. I don't know where we go next, but what I do know is, really old people look and act a lot like newborn babies, so there must be something circular and cyclical about it all. Like beginnings, we think that scene endings have to be neat and tidy, with a logical conclusion. Not necessarily so! A scene can end with a great punchline, a crazy twist, or an "uh-oh" moment and still leave the audience satisfied and entertained. If you don't have a lighting person to end your improv scenes, as in our case, it is often the audience (aka The Universe) who decides when a scene is over by their unanimous, spontaneous reaction through laughter or applause, or both. When you know, you know.

And what's so important about the ending anyway? Isn't it the "during" that counts? Do you think it would make you happier, more content, more at peace, knowing that your life will end well? What does that mean anyway - that you know you've achieved all your goals and dreams? Seems to me that's the time when you want to hold on, savour, enjoy. Ancient sages have told us the same thing in different languages and words: the journey is the destination. In improv, it's pretty much the same.