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Improvisational Training

Improvisation to Make Your Anxiety Work for You! Steven Spielberg is nauseous every time he starts to film a new scene. Muhammad Ali was terrified in the moments before every fight he ever fought. Fear is good. It makes us intensely aware of ourselves and everything around us. Adaptation is a necessity whenever we deal with unknown factors, and when interacting with others there are always unknown factors. Improvisation is not only for comic actors. It is a tried and true method of turning anxiety into creative action for EVERYONE. Hint: anxiety becomes positive energy when one is immersed in focused action.

Improvisational Skills Training is one application of the Ethical Presence TM process.


Some sample writing on the process:



This is an art book. The late, great actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman said this when he was promoting his great performance in the film Capote: “I think no one deserves sympathy and everyone deserves sympathy. I don’t think that there is any one on the planet if looked at closely enough is worthy of being judged. And everybody on the planet if looked at closely enough is worthy of being loved with the most love you can ever give. I think that is human. I think that’s human nature. I think that is everybody.” The greatness of art can be defined by the degree of its possession of two great characteristics: unflinching --- and at times even brutal --- honesty and accuracy in perception --- if looked at closely enough --- and intense, generous compassion --- love with the most love you can give.

The great attributes of art do not only belong to great creative geniuses like Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Art is simply a divine awareness and expression of, as Hoffman put it --- human nature – everybody. We all have moments of great clarity and expansive love in our lives. What if we decided to commit to living that way all of the time? What actors, writers, teachers, lawyers, business persons, brothers, daughters, spouses, parents --- humans --- we would be.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman was a brilliant genius in his observations about humanity; he was a brave and sweet mensch-hero who suffered for all of his characters --- us. He reached beyond himself and gifted us with abundant art in the form of an astounding body of work as an actor. He was also a drug addict. He couldn’t bear looking as closely as he did at the horrors of existence. Those looks were a requirement listed on his job description. So he escaped. Judgment would say he betrayed his family, his audience and most importantly himself because he couldn’t control the addictive aspect of his nature. Can you say that you love him for all that he gave to you AND you love him for all that he suffered and lost? Can you love the incredible actor and the self-destructive junkie? If so, we can get started because --- I think that is human. I think that’s human nature. I think that is everybody.

Full life is a paradox: diligent work to excel in our roles and pursue perfections rarely obtained; and an affectionate, accepting embrace of our individual and collective weakness, folly and even sin.

Let’s talk about the human/art side of the life equation first --- in this case improvisation. We can discuss approaches to doing the jobs later, once we are confident that we will be doing them as human beings.


When you look at any art, including this book, do not engage as mere audience. View art like a magician trying to understand another magician’s tricks. Audiences respond only to what is expressed in a piece and how it makes them think and feel. Their focus is on the effect not the method. Artists look for more. They have a deeper interest in how and why the piece was made. We artists learn (a continuous and lifelong process) from experience, observation, and our reflection on that experience and observation; and by the actual application of our takeaways from those processes to the making of our own creations. All of our creativity is our response, a part of a constant dialect that we have with other human creation and the natural world.


If you don’t feel anxiety before and when you improvise you are a recreational improviser and you came to the wrong place if you came to see me. In improvisation --- as opposed to an artsy- craftsy bowling night situation the struggle is everything. No one truly builds confidence by executing simple tasks and engaging in a circle jerk of congratulation with their clique of friends. Real improvisational work offers more than diversionary excitement; rather it is a process of real challenge and satisfaction.


We are all Bertie, the King of the film, The King’s Speech. Bertie was abused as a boy. He suffered a terrible speech impediment, a real disability. He didn’t want to be king. He assumed the throne when his older brother abdicated. He was called to speak to the British people in their darkest hour near the beginning of World War II. He worked diligently to tame his stammering and derived some satisfaction in doing so. When his time came to speak to the nation, he moved slowly and courageously into the challenge and gained confidence with each word. He did his job and raised the morale of his nation. His words were more effective because he had been beaten and scarred. Everyone sensed that he had authority to speak because he had met a terrible challenge that was not of his choosing like his audience, the British people who had just been forced into war. He did what we all have the potential to do --- speak in service of ourselves, others and the highest values of mankind.


There is a difference between narcissistic worried self-involvement, which is rightly dismissed in improvisation and other arts classes as being "stuck in one's head" and real consciousness of one's ACTUAL thoughts and emotions. The failure to make that crucial distinction leads to the instruction “DON'T THINK “that leads to scenes, written pieces etc. without THOUGHT.

YOU (and ME), in our most consciously authentic versions, aware of and expressing our truest and deepest thoughts and emotions through exquisitely detailed word and deed are the great gifts to ourselves that we are called to re-gift to the world.

I have noticed an emergence of the word "I" in MY recent writing. It initially concerned me. Who would care? I came to three conclusions. It is liberating, joyful and empowering to write about oneself. Our thoughts and emotions even when, as they often are, other-directed are still OUR thoughts and emotions. Jesus (divinity, mythic figure, literary character or historical figure, take your pick) said a lot about other people and did a lot for them always with the awareness that HE was the Son of God. Everything we say and do is about US. We are the most specific element in all that we create. If I write about improvisation, for example with optimism and frustration I am ultimately writing about what I want from improvisation for myself and other people. I count. I am in the frame of the scene AND the point of view of the scene..

Secondly, to effectively write about oneself I have to do so with contemplative depth leading to the exquisite detail I mentioned above. Diary, journal writing and the initial exploratory moments of improvisational acting are processes that lead to this detail. It is important for me to recognize the difference between that process and the resulting deep writing as an aspect of MY PERSONAL craft.

If I (notice my shifts from WE to I) share myself with artfully communicated truth, I avail myself of the opportunity to truly connect with fellow artists on page or stage and audience. This leads me to my third conclusion and the relevance of the Campbell quote above. I don't write or act or teach or direct to please ANY particular audience. I tell my workshops to "let YOUR audience find you." We are not meant to connect with everybody. What I (we) sacrifice in shallow popularity I (we) gain in REAL ENGAGEMENT with an equally PRESENT other. If one is abnegating oneself, pretending, performing, or persuading such engagement is impossible because one is not really there.

Campbell and Carl Jung before him married Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. The East connects us to the ALL. The West is a tradition that connects us to our individual destinies. The East gives a sense of participation in all of creation. The West gives us focus. We are limited in our existence. We can only love a finite number of people, places and things in our finite lives AND we can see the limitless universe in our necessarily limited view.

If I can straddle time and narrow location and eternity and the vastness of all that is in the same creative observation and insight in my writing, teaching and directing, I've had a good day.

Ego is not egotism.


The Point of Concentration is a base concept of improvisational acting that is widely misunderstood by many “improv” (a horrible term that denotes a surface and abbreviated understanding of the art) instructors. The instructors much like fundamentalist religious leaders in relation to Biblical text consider the concept in an overly material and concrete manner. Students are taught to respect the integrity of an imaginary object, an orange, a softball, a piece of wood for example and discouraged from allowing contemplation of the object to inspire exploration of broader, deeper and more important feelings and ideas inspired by the object. The resulting scenes, both in the immediate workshop and in the players’ subsequent careers are superficial and lack meaningful content. Audiences are inflicted with scenes considering the stitching on a baseball instead of, say, a meditation on the role of sports in American culture.

Take that improvisational acting staple, the relationship scene in which the point of concentration is the connection between (or lack thereof) two players in a scene. An excellent early example of this type of scene, from the 1960’s and directed by Paul Sills, explored the relationship between two women played by Barbara Harris and Zohra Lampert. The scene used the tension and warmth between the players as a starting point that evolved into an emotionally harrowing and intellectually provocative consideration of date rape at a time when such a topic was rarely even broached on a popular comedic stage. Compare this meaningful engagement with the audience with the current deluge of dating relationship scenes which either come to sentimental conclusions of love found or cynical comments about the acceptance of loneliness and the futility of even trying to establish intimacy with anyone. Audiences walk away with no insights that they didn’t enter the theater with, and at best a few forgettable laughs.

This sorry state of affairs could be traced to the lack of general education of the instructors themselves. Their intellectual laziness leads contemporary improvisational practice into the shallows described above. (This piece is not a blanket criticism of all teaching in the improvisational theater. Some excellent work is being done, usually in obscure and out of the way places.) Paul Sills and Viola Spolin, the artistic and theoretical forces behind all that was and remains good about improvisational theater, had a general knowledge of sociology, educational theory and practice, history, economics, theology, philosophy, world theater, journalism, literature, political science and “all the actions and passions of life about” as Mark Twain would say. So do I and some others. Much of current improvisational instruction is overly incestuous (a cabal of teachers “know” the form, share that limited “knowledge” as a means of undeserved self-affirmation, and marginalize anything that challenges their illusion of expertise) and commercialized. Students leave “improv” classes filled with excitement related to the  freeing aspects of play (that benefit of Sills and Spolin’s work seems indestructible no matter how badly it is mishandled) and with an in-group sense of superiority that shrouds the mediocrity of their efforts—to them anyway.


Improvisational instructors should particularly be interested in all of the arts. What is true about creative process is true in every artistic form and genre. I am very interested in the form of the personal essay. The essayist typically uses a singular focus, a point of concentration if you will, as a jumping off point for a discussion of wider matters. One random example of such an essay is Gore Vidal’s piece on Tennessee Williams’ memoirs, Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self. The writer Phillip Lopate said that Vidal uses Williams’ work “as a point of departure for a wider meditation on the subject.” Lopate continues, “Often (Vidal) will bring in personal experiences that bare on the public figure or the topic...he (Vidal) reveals a good deal about his life and character.” Advanced improvisational practice can reach the same heights in personal, existential, cultural, political and communal exploration as writing does when it is executed with a deep understanding of craft and its theoretical basis by the best writers. It’s been done before by Paul Sills, Viola Spolin and many of the players that they taught and directed.

It pains me to see so much of a revolutionary theatrical art that has achieved so much and is still in its infancy, be reduced to parlor games that serious people do not view as anything of importance. Much of current improvisational instruction exploits a valid aspiration in the uninitiated. Good work can be done. Sills and Spolin have shown us how. Improvisational artists have a responsibility to revere the concepts and foundations that they gave us, and bring the form forward as painters, writers and other artists have done for their forms for centuries. What we have mostly now are fading Xerox copies of work done in middling sketch comedy revues with shallow new pop culture references filling in the blanks.

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