Stoicism is one of those words that, through careless usage, has come adrift from its origins. Like ‘awesome’, or ‘literally’. With a small ‘s’, it just means enduring hardship without displaying emotions. But with its imperious capital letter, Stoiscism is a rich and immediate philosophy. It doesn’t deny or minimise emotions, rather it keeps a wry distance from them, understands that they are temporary and contingent. The Stoic does not feel nothing, but understands that they have a degree of control over what they feel. “You can always choose”, Marcus Aurelius writes, “not to care”.
And Marcus Aurelius had things to care about. He was an emperor who presided over an unstable and violent period of Roman history. He fought wars against the Marcomanni, the Quadi, and Sarmatians. He survived betrayals by his close friend and an assasination attempt involving his own sister. In that context as much as any other, not caring is not a choice, but a constant practice. Stoicism and meditation go very nicely together.
I always think that the most Stoic of all improv exercises is my friend and yours, the good ol’ ‘one word story’. Ideally, one where you shout ‘Hurray’ (or ‘We fucked up’) when something goes wrong, and start again. Some stories work gloriously, some fail gloriously. Some are just fine. But however it goes, there is a liveness in knowing that the story could be taken away from you at any moment, for a reason you might never know. That’s not a bad thing to remind ourselves of when we are improvising. How lucky we are to be doing it. And that most scenes are not our best work, nor are they our worst. They happen and we might learn something, but we should not attach too much self-worth to them.
A core element of Stoic philosophy is the meditation on death and impermanence. What we are doing doesn’t matter. It will pass away soon, as will we and all who remember us. It’s easy to make that a negative, but it is also very freeing. Few things that we do really matter on any meaningful scale. If we will be dead soon, and so will everybody who remembers us, can we ever really say this tiny scene matters? Could anything matter less? The arrogance of it!
In Stoicism, the highest aim is ‘virtue’ or living well. Not in luxury or fame, or covered in glory, but so that you stand by your choices. Virtue means training yourself to be able to respond with agility and grace. Frustration comes from surprise, which can come from rigid expectation. If you have a certain way you want a scene to go, you might miss how it does. If there is a learning point that must be delivered, we might scream past what really needs to happen in that class. Stoics go slowly and discard plans when they no longer serve.
After all, if you wanted to guarantee what is going to happen onstage, you might as well write a play. In improvising, we deliberately subject ourselves to lack of control. The frustrations and surprises are the feature, the delight. We come to improv because of this very unpredictability, the involvement of that most unreliable of tools – the other improviser. Whether we have lives that require care and planning or personality types that seek it (guilty!), we are initially, headily drawn to the fluidity and fuck-it-why-not-ness. We must make sure the structure and rigidity we were escaping don’t creep back in.
So improvise like a Stoic. Care a little less, love what happens a little more, and take yourself a little less seriously. Prepare rigorously and then discard your plans. Love what you do and also be professional. Be very serious and also very stupid. (I like to say that I am never joking and also never serious.) It’s not ‘but’, it’s both. It’s right there in the name of this company. Trust that you contain multitudes. We all do.
Practically, what does this mean? How can you be more Stoic in your improv? Stoicism is an immediate, practical form of philosophy. It demands to be actively engaged with. Try any of the following things:
- Reflect on your improvisation before and after. Whether you keep a journal, meditate or simply run over the scenes in your head, it is not a betrayal of anything to remember what has happened and consider what you might have done differently. Not better, differently. Even better, write it down. For yourself, not for others. Read your journal back sometimes, to see how foolish you are
- Take another person’s perspective. I don’t just mean be empathetic and present with someone (though those are important), but try to see where they are coming from. Simply put, just shut up
- Choose not to care. Just make the decision, and then make the same decision again when caring slips back in
- Play ‘one-word story’ more often, especially with experienced improvisers
- Eat slowly
- Read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius