Who Is Nick?

Improv Your Life

March 12, 2005 | 7 Minute Read

When people call me a bullshitter, I take that as a compliment. I smile, and sometimes correct them and say I’m an improviser. Because really, where’s the difference? When I was younger I picked up a saxophone and immerse myself in jazz. I learned how to improvise and the power of if. It’s all about spontaneous thought. It’s all about putting an idea out there without any hesitation. It’s a small element of that unconscious computer that Malcolm Gladwell delves into with his book blink.

Watch Who’s Line is it anyway?, listen to any jazz album and you’ll see/hear the beauty unfold. You’ll see a magical moment where things click. It all just comes together perfectly. Keith Johnstone, one of the improv theater founders, was quoted in blink to say “Good improvisers seem telepathic; everything looks pre-arranged.” Lines feed into lines, great moments seem to unfold in a wondrous way.

Now, for a moment, imagine your life unfolding like this. Try to think about the potential that this kind of power it could have on your life - a series of moments that just seem to click. I believe anyone can tap into this, they just need to know how. And really it comes down to 3 simple intertwined rules

1. Roll with it

When 2 actors are improvising, the minute one rejects the thoughts or ideas of the other, the entire sketch is ruined. Jazz uses the same principle, only instead of rejecting the thoughts, if you reject the chords or the rhythm you get a train wreck of sound. The beauty as Johnstone says “…is because they accept all offers made.” If someone in the sketch say’s “Your arm needs amputating!” You don’t say “No it doesn’t.” You accept that fact and might say something like, “It’s the one you amputated last time.” Much more interesting.

It’s a very common hurtle for new improvisers to fight. The idea that one needs to accept all offers, as Johnstone thinks, “…is something no ‘normal’ person would do.” But I believe that if you want to really tap into life, using this idea of improve, you must. It’s a critical element. So why is it that it’s so hard? One word: control. By rejecting someone else’s ideas, you’re trying to gain control. In essence you are stating “I’m the leader, not you.” The fight for power and control is definitely something that sociologists, psychologists and philosophers analyze over and over. It’s the alpha mentality: “I’m in control of my life.” But as many have pointed out, control is an illusion.

I say “roll with it”. If someone say’s turn left, turn left. If traffic is slow, drive slower. If someone asks if you want to do something, say “sure”. When you don’t fight the world around you and roll with it, you’d be surprised at what can happen. I had a burger in the Bronx at 1 in the morning; Ended up in Halifax to have an entirely paid for trip, and was a part of the International Tattoo, pretending to play the tuba. I even ended up moving from Ontario to BC. I can’t say my life has been boring by any means.

2. Nothing is “wrong”

I hate it when I hear people say the word “wrong”. I remember having an argument with a friend of mine in high-school about the idea. It was of course before I embraced this concept myself. She was arguing that she was never wrong, she went on to say “1 + 1 = 4″. I of course jumped and said that she was wrong. So to prove her point we had a chat with our math teacher on this. And matter of fact, the teacher said, well, it was possible if you re-define what “1″ is. You could theoretically prove that 1+1=4. And by this admission of the teacher, I saw something. I wasn’t wrong in thinking 1+1=2 and she wasn’t wrong in saying 1+1=4. We both were right.

So I really started to ask myself what is right and wrong? One of my answers is “It all depends on who you ask” If this concept is so subjective, how can it be a solid truth? To one person it’s wrong and to someone else it’s a breakthrough. To one person it’s funny and to someone else it’s cruel. One person thinks it sounds beautiful, and to another it’s crap. So why do we have terms like right and wrong in the first place? Again it comes down to the same reason why people have difficulty in “Rolling with it”.

When you say “You’re wrong” it’s the exact thing as saying “No”. It’s a control issue. You’re trying to be alpha. You’re trying to gain control of you’re life. You’re trying to control the world around you so that it fit’s into your perceptions and control it. In the world of improv, there can’t be any wrong for the magic to happen. there can be dissonance and conflict, but that’s not “wrong”. These concepts are all subjective, it’s like listening to the difference between Thelonious Monk and Stan Getz. Dissonance will always turn to your idea of harmony and conflict will always turn to your idea of resolution if you just roll with it.

3. Play with balls!!

This is a great expression I picked up from a jazz director. When I first joined his jazz band, I was supposed to solo and I was pretty timid in what I played. He stopped the whole band and looked at me. I remember he was yelling “What’s wrong? Got something stuck in your horn?” As I was just learning at the time, I wasn’t confident in my playing. I told him that I didn’t know what I was playing. He looked at me and pointed to the empty auditorium behind us and said “Do you think any of these people really know what the fuck you’re supposed to be playing? It’s jazz! They don’t care! They’re stupid. It’s your job to tell them what you’re playing. You’ve got to play with balls! Play it like you mean it! You’re the musician and they aren’t! Tell them this is exactly what you’re supposed to be playing. Don’t back down. Hit the note, and play with balls!”

He was a crass man; a vulgar man. But he taught me that you need to have confidence. You need to believe in yourself and what you are doing and saying. Which ties into the previous idea of “nothing is wrong”. If you can’t be wrong, then why would you be timid? Why would you stress out about what other people thought. And the funny thing I’ve learned, is when you say it confidently, no one questions it.

Can’t Pick One

Now the trick with these 3 rules is they all have to be used in conjunction. You can’t miss one of them. You can’t roll with it, and think something is wrong. You can’t be confident, and not roll with it. If one of these elements is missing in the process, then somehow it breaks down. It could sound o.k. The sketch could be amusing. But it’s not magic. It doesn’t “click”. They all rely on each other. They need to be in harmony for the spell to happen.

I believe improv can conjure powerful forces to allow things to work and click. And if you use these in your daily life, things magically come together. The things you should be doing become the things you are doing. Life becomes a great adventure of new things and new revelations, and ultimately you might find the life you wanted to live becomes the life you are living.