Hands up if you have heard something like this in an improv class: ‘Say the first thing that comes into your head.’ ‘Go with your gut.’ ‘You know the answer.’ ‘Just see what happens.’ (The last one is even the subtitle of our level one syllabus.) How many hands are up? Everybody’s? I’m glad. If you dip your toes in improv, you would be forgiven for thinking it is all learning permission and getting over that time when (at 14) you were told you couldn’t sing, or draw, or that your poetry sucked.
Now when you start improvising, this idea is very important. If you come from an education system that teaches compliance (and if you are reading this, you probably do), learning to trust the quiet voice inside is important, even subversive. It’s one of the reasons why improvisation can be so transformational. It re-asserts the value of the individual, and that creativity sits within and serves us all. That’s undeniably beautiful.
This idea has a fine and noble history. The journey of modernisation in the post-enlightenment West has been the gradual expansion of the circle of those who are considered ‘fully’ human. From men with historical position to those without, to women, the poor, those of the global majority, alternative* sexual and gender identities, the neuro-atypical. Gradually, and not without setbacks, more and more people have become part of the mainstream of thought, given rights in law and in practice. It’s called humanism. It’s not a perfect process, nor is it finished, but you would be hard-pressed to not think it is wonderful. More and more people are now considered to be people. And it is an idea that is (as it always has been) under threat. Information capitalism and the surveillance state, with their abilities to nudge and massage opinions stand ready to take it apart, to make us better cogs in the great greed machine. But this is not my area, so let me get back to IMPROV.
Because, like my courgette plants, this beautiful and liberating idea can get out of control in an improv class. (The ugliest behaviours are often over-extensions of the best ones.) What happens if all you ever do is trust your instincts and other people are more fun to watch? What if their scenes are (whisper it) just better? Might it be that the ‘you’ which is being expressed is worth less? Might it be that you are not enough after all? Better book another masterclass!
There is a bit of a problem here with learning improv from skilled performers. An experienced improviser who performs regularly will (and should) speak to you from their experience. They will tell you what serves them when they get onstage. And if they have years and years on the clock, most likely accessing their instincts is what they need to do. The graft and grind of simple, technical improvements are probably far behind them. They listen to their instincts because they have trained them. (This, incidentally, is the reason why I have made a point of never improving past the level of ‘perfectly decent’ at improv. If you are struggling with all this, so am I. My instincts suck. It keeps me honest.)
It all comes back to a great divide in artistic creation: the formalist versus the romantic. Formalism holds that great art comes from the most elegant use of the formal expectations that surround the artform. You learn what others have done and are in relation to that tradition, part of a great sweep of history. Romanticism says that greatness comes from inspiration within. The best expression of the person in paint, words, or notes. Just know, says the formalist, just be, says the romantic.
Those of you who read this blog regularly will detect me setting up a false binary. The truth, of course, is that to be creative you need formal skill and romantic inspiration both. Each fuels and serves the other. Skill allows you to express yourself as you want to, and a drive brings you back to the grind. “Inspiration exists, but it must find you working”, says Picasso. (He was an awful man, but hella quotable.)
Because here is the uncomfortable bit. At a certain point, your instincts will no longer serve you. The very ‘self’ which was delightful to express will become the thing that stunts your growth.
Instinct is the positive word for prejudice. It is composed of low-res, simplistic heuristics which work most of the time. They are, as Ramachandran puts it “a summary of how we have reasoned before”. Note the last, dangerous word. I do not want to be restricted to how I have reasoned before. I want to try new things and learn from them.
So when (as I sometimes do) I say ‘fuck your instincts’, I am of course being provocative. But I also mean it. Your instincts are wonderful, powerful things. But they are not You. You are not bound to them. You can ignore them sometimes. What they offer are just options, and there is great power in just not doing the thing which you always do. You might learn some new instincts, or make those you have more precise and nuanced. You might completely unlearn something that isn’t serving you. Try improvising as you wouldn’t. Fuck your instincts.
* I am using the word ‘alternative’ knowingly here, as in alternative to the cis-het-monogamous norm which was being expanded from.