The title of this blog is a bit ironic, since art really doesn’t follow a line, or a lane for that matter. It tends to wander over the terrain of possibility, poking its nose in normally closed, otherwise unremarkable places. The successful artist knows that his work will hit each observer differently. That dynamic, the doing and the observing – whether we’re talking about painting, interpretative dance, acting or music, is part of the artistic process. The artist who insists the observer see his work in only a determined fashion is likely not a true artist. (That’s my opinion, not fact, and I’m sticking with it)
The Girl and I went to see a stage show, based upon improvisational comedy, at Second City in Toronto. Fortunately, we were early and so managed to grab some seats right at the front of the place. It was a treat to hear her musical laugh all the way through.
After, we got to talking.
She shook her head. “I could never do that”.
“Oh I don’t know. I’ll bet you could. I used to be fairly shy on stage but once you get into it, it’s a lot of fun. And there are so many other benefits too.”
This took me back about five years ago, when I started taking improv classes. For those who don’t know what improv is, think about that show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” with Drew Carey. The four member cast at the front would take suggestions from the audience and then build stories that they would act out. For example, they would ask the audience about an object that they might find in the trunk of their car. “An old doll!”
“OK, and what kind of room can think of that would only hold four people?”
“A sausage factory!”
“A sausage factory? Wow. You’re weird. I want to talk to you afterward. I think we’ll go with the bathroom. So, right. We’re talking about an old doll in a bathroom. And…..SCENE!”
With that, the actors would act out a story using those two elements. It remained for them to figure out the relationship between the four people.
It sounds difficult but really, it’s about going back to your childhood. Any of you reading this can probably remember playing with your friends at a very young age, and making up stories and relationships, right? It’s about letting go of your dignity long enough to be a child again.
When you take the improv course, there are two important rules: one, everyone participates; and two, no one is allowed to say “no” to any suggestions being made. Since everyone in the classroom has to participate, it’s pretty difficult to feel shy or centered out. The risk belongs to everyone, not just one single person.
I frankly can’t think of another adult group activity that was ever so much fun. You got to be as creative as you like. You could learn different personalities and act them out. And once you did it in class for a few years, as I did, going up on stage wasn’t that big a deal. It kind of made it more exciting.
I once played an old man who was married to a gold-digging wife who was seeing a doctor on the side. Her and the doctor decided they wanted me dead, so he prescribed an experimental drug on me, which had the unfortunate side effect of causing a permanent erection. For that, we developed a prop which I wore under my medical gown, creating a larger than life tent, which I used to bump into things and people and knocking things over. A little low-brow perhaps, but you couldn’t argue with the audience, all of whom were laughing in disbelief.
In one of our classes, the instructor was teaching us about the weight of our imaginary set. In this case, he wanted us to imagine a heavy heavy door, and he wanted us to build a scene where we had to open and close that door with great difficulty. Anyone could go up, and so we did. The first guy walked about to the door, took out an imaginary heavy set of keys, stuck it in the lock, fooled around with it for a while trying to get it to work. Once unlocked, he had to put all of his body weight into opening it, and then again when he had to pull it shut. The next guy went through the same routine, entered the room and began to have some low chatter with the first guy. A few more went up, using different variations.
Until that point, we didn’t know what this door was, or what room it opened into. So I went up. Like the others, I had difficulty opening this imaginary door. Once I got inside though, I looked around in disgust at them. “Hey, how many of you guys here? ” I began counting. “One, two, five. Ok you’re all here. So let me ask: WHO THE HELL IS OUT THERE GUARDING THE PRISONERS????” With that, they all scurried back out of the door.
The side benefits?
Well, hanging out with all of these vibrant creatives types after the show was just magical. So many summer nights when we tried out different late night restaurants, or went to one or the other’s house, where we’d end up drinking and talking until the wee hours of the morning. Our discussions turned serious sometimes, and we got into some heavy topics. We also got into a lot of “what if” topics – perhaps a by-product of the improv creative process.
We learned to practice our improv art in real life situations too. One night, three of us talked about what we wanted to do for Hallowe’en.
“I know!” said our host. “Why don’ t we go as priest and nun?”
The girl in our little group looked at me. “You can go as an altar boy.”
Our host grinned. “And I can put of those S&M dog studded collars on your neck and we can walk down Yonge St., just to see the reactions.”
I both loved and was horrified by the idea. We never got around to doing it, of course, because by the time Hallowe’en rolled around we were all off doing our own thing.
My friends and I had such a good time, being on stage and then hanging out afterward, that I kind of took it for granted.
This, for me, represents the artist lifestyle. Being with people who by virtue of their own fertile imaginations, allow and provoke creativity in your own mind. It, along with Tom Robbins’ book – Jitterbug Perfume – provided a sort of life epiphany for me.
“Epiphany” murmured The Girl, in her sweet Russian accent.
“Right. A sudden insight, usually brilliant, which can cause a change in your thinking and actions.” That was the best I could come up with.
She smiled. “I’m adding that one to my vocabulary.”