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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Thinking Outside the Pattern

The human brain is absolutely incredible.  It is composed of billions of neurons that combine with one another to create an estimated quadrillion connections all of which systematically and efficiently store information.  This varies from super important information like how to breathe to pretty useless crap like what was Kim Kardashian wore to the MTV Movie Awards.  In short our brains are awesome.

But in improvisation, our brains often work against us. Sometimes our brains are too awesome.

Let me preface this article by saying I am no scientist, by any means.  I am an improviser and as such, kind of a nerd.  That sums up my scientific credentials. But I have made a few observations over the last decade while improvising.

What I’ve noticed is that our brains love patterns.  Information that is connected is easier to remember. In our day to day life this is extremely important.  Identifying and remembering patterns literally help keep us alive. The first time we touch boiling water as a child we have no idea what happened.  We understand the pain and react accordingly but have no idea why our hand is burning.  The second time this happens our brains can form a pattern connecting the hot water to pain.  Then, the next time we see a pot of boiling water our brains instinctively inform us not to touch it.

When we study we use patterns to help us remember important information.  Acronyms are a common way information is organised into patterns for easy access later on.  Does anyone remember what BEDMAS or PEDMAS stands for? Chances are many of you do, even though you may have learned that acronym years and years ago.

Patterns allow us to access information that we have already taken in, synthesized and formed conclusions about.  They inform our actions each and every day. They save us time. They dictate how we feel about people and ideas.  They keep us safe, which is the opposite of what we want to do onstage when we improvise.

Improvisation requires performers to leave preconceived notions backstage. We need to be open onstage, completely. We need to be open to new ideas, situations and solutions. We need to be in that state of mind that exists before we’ve formed the patterns that keep us safe.  It’s a state of childlike wonder.  Anything can happen.  We leap first and worry about the impact once we are in mid-air. We must put ourselves at extreme imagined risk without giving a thought to the consequences.  Just like a child touching boiling water for the first time.

When accomplished properly this feeling is exhilarating onstage.  It’s like playing a massive trust game with your scene partner and the entire audience.  It feels like you are falling backwards, eyes closed, knowing that someone will catch you for the entire scene.  It’s one of my favorite parts of performing.  It’s that wonderful sensation of truly not knowing what’s going to happen next.  It’s why audiences come to improv.

However, like everything in improvisation it’s much easier said than done. How is it possible to let go of a lifetime of patterns that inform every decision you make? Well, there are a few schools of thought on this.

In the early days of improvisation in Calgary, according to Rick Hilton, my good friend and improv mentor, Keith Johnstone would have actors count in their heads throughout a scene.  Or he might have had them doing a repetitive physical task during the scene that did not connect to what was happening onstage.  The idea was to overload the brain so that it couldn’t function normally and preconceive the content of the scene.  I’ve done this exercise and it is extremely challenging.  It does work.  However I’ve also noticed that the scenes that emerge while not planned are often lacking in story, character transformations and most things that generally constitute great improvisation.

This idea of confusing the brain is what actually generated most of the improv games we’ve come to know and love.  The games were initially created as a rehearsal tool to give the brain a task so that narrative could flow out of the subconscious uninhibited. In Missing Letter for example, the conscious brain is occupied with not saying the letter “R” in any of the words while the subconscious brain has to fill in the gaps.  In Character Switch the conscious brain is concerned with listening to a bell and accurately switching into a character that your scene partner created while the subconscious brain is telling the story.  As it turns out many are wonderful to watch and are now performed all around the world. No longer are they just a rehearsal tool. The audience gets to enjoy both the skill of the conscious brain and the spontaneous storytelling of the subconscious brain.

So how do we apply this to open scene work? Should we try and confuse our conscious brains as in short form games? I would argue no.  I like to have all my mental faculties available when performing a scene both conscious and unconscious. It’s not the confusion that we’re after anyway, it’s the effect the confusion has on the subconscious. It prevents us from planning based on patterns from our lives.

It’s extremely difficult to not do something.  The classic example – don’t think about a pink elephant. So I’m not going to advise you simply not to plan.  What I do, and what I encourage others to do is to actively cultivate a sense of discovery onstage.  That’s the state we exist in before we form patterns.  Notice something about your scene partner, or the room that you have never noticed before. Listen closely to the way they speak their words.  What are their hands doing? How is their hair falling tonight? Curiosity may have killed the cat but it makes the improviser. Open up your eyes wide, open up your body physically and discover the scene. Discover a game with your partner. Play with them, like kids do.  Create a brand new pattern onstage for the very first time. Confusing the brain is well, confusing. But engaging the conscious brain in discovery is freeing.

Warm up games can be a big help.  Keith Johnstone’s Misnaming Objects and Alan Marriot’s Endless Box are two of my favourite games to induce this state of mind.  If you want to know how to play them leave a comment and I can explain further. 

But ultimately it’s all about discovery.  So get onstage and stick your hand in a pot of boiling water. Consequences are of no import to the improviser. When no patterns apply, what you discover will even surprise you.


  1. It is really interesting, this idea of planning. I see the improvisor being of three minds simultaneously and constantly.

    The first and easiest: the present - speaking in a scene.
    The second, more challenging: the past - remembering where you have been, a simpler version of minding the narrative.
    And the third (most skilled): the future - 'minding' the narrative to come. Making offers or picking up on offers that drive narrative.

    To discuss the 'future mind' more:
    I think this is what makes the difference between a good improviser and a great one. The improviser must plan, must have an intention for all they contribute to a scene. But, at the same time, must instantaneously let go of that plan as soon as the partner has shifted the idea in another direction. Improvising without minding the narrative isn't as fulfilling, and improvising while controlling the narrative is no fun (to watch or play). The improviser should always be watching for the 'micro-offers' that give birth to the narrative in the scene, that way both players are surprised by the other, yet both tending to the narrative. This interchange between planning, or future mind, and letting go is constant.

    All while still thinking with the present mind and the past mind. No biggie.

    This is crazy stuff we do for fun :)

  2. You've touched on something very interesting Laura, this ability the improviser must have to split their mind. I like to think about it as putting your brain into soft focus, just like when you engage your peripheral vision. When we are looking at something out of the corner of our eye we have a greater field of view but it’s all a bit blurrier. It’s what you have to do to see a magic eye poster, remember those?

    The same is true of our brains. We can focus on one idea very precisely, or we can allow our brain to consider many possibilities at once.

    But you’re right. When I said: “Consequences are of no import to the improviser” it wasn’t strictly true. We absolutely must mind the scene and keep the promises we make to the audience. Not all offers are created equal. But in the moment we make them we can’t be worried about that.