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What improv taught me about falling up

When I was in elementary school, I was enthralled by Shel Silverstein's quirky poems, a collection of which is called "Falling Up". Of course, it is after years of meticulous training in literary analysis that I go back to these childhood poems on my shelf and search for deep, metaphysical meaning that the author probably never intended (the trademark of all good English majors). 

What does it mean to fall up? How can failure ever take you "up to the roof tops, up over the town, up past the tree tops, up over the mountains, up where the colors blend into the sounds"?

I have led my entire life on the premise of capitalist perfectionism (sadly, I can't blame this one on the trope of typical South Asian parents - I taught myself to believe that self-acceptance came from perfect GPA's). The irony of this competitive mindset is that it is the biggest disservice you can do to yourself, causing a paralysis of sorts, an anxiety or fear of failure. Always being successful, in the objective sense of the word, has its glass ceiling - the more you succeed, the lower your resilience to failure.

The creative world, at least the pursuits in which I now find myself, are heavily dependent on what you learn when you fail. Yes, when, not if you fail. It is impossible to write a perfect first draft, in fact best practice is to delete it completely! It is improbable not to have many rejections before your pitch makes its way into the right network. A writer's room consists of brilliant minds who have the courage to spitball ridiculous ideas that have evolved into some of the most memorable scenes of our time. You cannot and should not become attached to your first story because there is so much more to uncover. What hypocrisy it would be to create a flawed and relatable character if you do not acknowledge your own flaws throughout the process!

As arrogant as it sounds, I admit that for me to not have something right the first time (or in the case of novel writing, the 30th time) around requires undoing years of expectations from both myself and society to put outcomes above self-discovery. The latter embraces temporary (or at times permanent) defeat as a necessary foundation for creative progress. It acknowledges the forces outside of your realm of control that will harshly decide your fate no matter how hard you work. But, your redemption lies in the utter freedom of doing what you love without worrying about whether the world agrees, to have no master except your own soul, as Roald Dahl claims.

This sounds like an obvious and cliched revelation, but it is counterintuitive to what academic, professional, or even sociocultural systems have ingrained in me for 30 years. Somehow we become so calculated in how our every move will be perceived as a reflection of our character, that we hesitate to to just blurt out the first thing that comes to our minds!

Enter improv. I have always loved theatre and putting on wild characters at home, especially villains, because they provide a cathartic outlet for everything I'm not "allowed" to be in my public life. Studying the art of improv, then, was a long overdue treat to myself, perhaps something I was nervous to try because it challenges an art in which I have spent a long time developing greatness - the art of overthinking, that is. 

Although I knew I would enjoy the craft, I was pleasantly surprised at how incredibly liberating I found it to participate in a world where you have to trust your unrehearsed response to whatever bizarre scenario is thrown your way. I don't mean to deny the hours of painstaking work that improv artists put into their craft; but I feel that work is all about building your capacity to "go with your gut" and become really good at leaning into human nature. It is not about scripting your responses to be deliberately funny, which is a common misconception I had at the onset. It is about understanding that what you instinctively or impulsively say or do is often the most sincere and relatable version of yourself to other human beings (because deep down they too are tired of putting up a facade).

It blew my mind to understand that by tapping into the full range of our emotions, we incite laughter from the audience in unexpected ways. Humour comes from seeing at times the worst or most vulnerable parts of ourselves reflected on stage, where the judgement falls on fictional characters rather than on ourselves because the real world allows little room for that.

There are no mistakes in improv - you just take what is offered to you and build upon it (the famous "yes, and"). Many of us in the introductory course began with similar fears of, but what if I say something stupid? In the corporate world, you would never walk into a room full of sharks without planning exactly what you will say to impress them, or at the least convince them not to rip you to shreds.

It took a safe artistic space (like Bad Dog), an amazing teacher (like Gavin), and encouraging classmates to force myself to stop anticipating what I would say when my name was called and just see what my brain came up with. Much to my joy, instead of awkward silence, my spontaneity revealed new characters, worlds and scenes even when we were restricted to use only a single word each in dialogue, or simply mime our actions! 

Improvisation is about how you respond to the world in the most natural way possible - through imperfection. It, like many other artistic endeavours that our systems take for granted, builds resilience to rejection in a way that is so instrumental to individual and societal progress. To assume that we should already have all the answers in life limits all the possibilities of what we have yet to discover every time we fall. It is an upside down view of the world which I have denied myself for far too long and which I look forward to mustering up the courage to experience with all the wonderful non-mistakes that lie ahead, Insha'Allah.

Image Credit: Shel Silverstein