Last week, I wrote about improv myths and how they get in our way. I gleefully swiped at strawmen too absent to respond. I enjoyed it, and it seemed to strike a chord with some people. (Thanks for the emails – I actually love getting emails.) It’s both easy and satisfying to grizzle, to say everything is terrible, and everybody else’s fault. But. But but but. It doesn’t often get you very far. Because you know who Gets Thing Done? You know who Makes Things Happen? It is not the critic who counts. It’s the man in the arena. There are no prizes for finding the most problems.
So do you want to know the secret? The key to improvising (and possibly to life itself, but that’s beyond my remit). Draw closer, pull up a chair and let me tell you the sum total of a decade and a half doing this (not that long really, but enough time to have picked up a few things). Ready? Here it is: Turn up. As simple as that. Be there, doing the thing. Make things up, laugh it off and do it again. Then come back the next week. Turn up. If you want to get good at something as ephemeral and fluid as improv: Turn up. If you want to learn from others: Turn up. If your last show felt terrible: Turn up anyway, wondering why. If someone pisses you off: Talk to them about it, but Turn up.
For those who dislike gnomic pronouncements, I am sorry this is not more complex. Simple is not the same as easy. There are myriad fractal, nesting micro-skills involved in improv, but you can’t practise any of them if you are absent. Complexity can lead from simplicity. So: Turn up.
And when I say Turn Up, I don’t just mean turn up, I mean Turn Up: be there and nowhere else. Have your whole brain in the room. Be curious about what is happening. Don’t look for ways in which it is similar to what you did before, look for the ways in which this single simple thing which you are doing is different, new and impossible to simplify. Turn Up. A mystery solved is the end of the book. Turn Up, be There and stay There. Turn up to the complexity and lack of conclusions. Turn Up to being changed and surprised.
Maybe you’re a bit tired, unsure of yourself, dont’ know what is happening. Where do you begin? In improv, you can’t look at what you drew last time. Or the scoreline. Or listen back to what you recorded. You are always starting from zero. From the fact that you bothered to turn up. That is the thing we can agree on, and then do. That is the thing without which there is nothing.
But wait. You started improvising because it’s fun (and wow is it fun), and then suddenly parts of it are hard. They require attention, take longer to grasp. People ask you to Turn up. To what? Maybe the goal is unclear because it is new. It’ll get clearer. Turn up. Maybe you are not working on something that has yet been solved. R&D doesn’t have specific goals. You trust something will come and you just (say it with me): Turn up.
Enthusiasm builds like a muscle, as does curiosity, persistence and joy. Decide to turn up not for your current self, but the future one. That’s it. When you can’t be bothered: turn up. When you are tired: turn up. When you think there’s no point: turn up. Sometimes there will be no point. Turn up anyway. Creativity is spectacularly inefficient, and there are a million ways you can spend your time if you turn up, but if you don’t turn up, then you were never there. Turn Up.