Improvising

I’m doing it again. Here’s another chapter illustration from Playing with Sharp Objects. Curtesy of Michael Swearingen. You clicked on the blog. You had it coming.

The caption of this image is a line from the musical Chicago. I was involved in a high school drama program that produced that show over ten years ago. It was directed by one my mentors, Michael Sheeks. Michael currently runs The Forst Inn Arts Collective in Wisconsin. Pretty cool.

Anyway, I walked into the auditorium after, once again, being talked disciplined by my school district. A group of actors were on stage. They were rehearsing Cell Block Tango.

“He had it coming,” they sang in unison. I guess I did too.

I love the comic above. The poor girl is just sitting there. Tragedy strikes. A finger falls off. Then they all fall off. She never saw it coming.

I never imagined I’d be suspended without pay twice in one year by my school district. For being inappropriate. The same year I was voted most inspirational teacher by the students. What did I do? Lots of things. Here’s something that was written in my file: A group of juniors and seniors in a drama elective watched the Office to talk about comic timing. Sinner! String me up. My district tried. I never saw it coming.

Circumstances can change so quickly. I thought I’d be a high school teacher for life. Then I wasn’t. It’s impossible to predict what will happen next. You can’t control the future. That’s a theme in my trilogy of Weepy Memoirs, to be sure.

***

Existence is fragile. Scary. We are, by nature, insecure beings. I’m directing Seussical the Musical right now. For a small Christian High School in State College, Pennsylvania. How’s that for unexpected?

I’m not a huge fan of musicals. But there’s something about Seussical I like. The play depicts the “Whos” as a helplessly innocent race on the verge of complete annihilation. They live on a speck of dust and, if the dust isn’t protected by an elephant named Horton, they will die. Oi vey. They are, in a word, insecure. Rightfully so.

Insecurity, to my view, is born out of fear. One way people seem to cope with fragility is to attempt to control their circumstances. Make the world the way they want it to be. Get rid of the stuff that doesn’t make sense.

Recent and less recent history is filled with stories of people trying to destroy the things that they don’t understand – the things that don’t fit with their view of the universe. Build walls. Or armies. Or camps. Or evaluation rubrics. My experience as a teacher is certainly born out of this desire to kill off strange things. Sam Tanner doesn’t act like what you think a teacher should act like? String him up. Sinner.

Improv is interesting because the medium requires participants to accept a few things. There is no way to control what happens in the improvisation. Whatever emerges from the work is supposed to emerge from the work. Accept it and move with it. Work with it. Don’t kill it.

I’ve worked with many improvisers. I’ve learned that people are so resistant to the idea that there isn’t a right way to improvise. If there’s a right way then there’s a wrong way. And if there’s a wrong way then there are things we can avoid, erase, negate, and kill off. But this negation – this desire to identify and name a wrongness – is, by virtue of the medium, not improvisational. What a mouthful of words. And thoughts. Improv forces us to accept and move with everything. The good. The bad. The ugly. The pretty. The funny. The not funny. Don’t shy away from your insecurities. You can’t control the group or the content or the story or the universe. Instead, the medium requires you to accept. Accept what? The tragedy. The joy. The strange. The things you don’t understand. The things you can’t control. This lesson transfers, I think. To lots of things.

***

My friend Natalie visited us last week. Natalie was a student in my high school classes over ten years ago. Then she was a research assistant during my dissertation. Then she was our go-to babysitter. Now she flies out from Minnesota once a year and stays with us. The boys adore her. I look forward to her visits. Katie too.

Natalie has become a close friend. I don’t want to put words in her mouth but, to hear her tell of it, she hated me when we first met. She thought I was a ridiculous teacher. But, over time, she came to appreciate me. My work too. I wasn’t what she thought I was. She was open to that, to her credit.

Honestly, this is one reason I love working with high school students. Their views haven’t calcified yet. They are open. Improv teaches adults to remain open, yes, but it seems an uphill battle to me. It’s easier for young people to accept and work with difference, maybe.

Anyway, if you asked me who would come out and visit after we left Minneapolis, I’d have never suspected that it would be Natalie. Yet here we are. Strangely, she’s become an unexpected member of our extended family. Talk about improvisational.

I’m 38. I’m less sure of everything. But I also know more. Talk about complexity.

I’ve got more stories about how things work now. But I’m still certain that there’s more that I don’t know. Of course I’m still insecure. And of course I still make the mistake of trying to control things. Things I don’t understand. Things that disrupt what I think I am. Where I think I am. What I think I’m doing. Still, I’m trying at a sort of adulthood. The world will never be what I think it should be. And that’s okay. I can work with that.

I can improvise.

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