Simps, Improv and Education

I just came back from a show by the Stanford Improvisers (SIMPS) called “Phantom of the Improv” at the Pigott Theater. I watched 8 members produce a improvised, unrehearsed 50 minute Broadway-style musical called “The Ballet Class” (the title was selected through many audience suggestions and subsequent voting)

It was incredibly fun.

I love sIMPs shows: they are funny, musical and surprising. This show was the best entertainment I could recommend to anyone. The songs were catchy, the actors were funny and real, and the plot had a great ending. The story was basically about a school where a new kid gets into trouble on the first day with a “bad kid”, then joins the homeroom art project of “expressing yourself” with two other students who learn ballet. The bad boy is eventually convinced to join the project as well and give it a chance.

The idea of Improv is so alluring to me – because it is basically the opposite of gymnastics. In gymnasts you practice and practice the same thing and in the competition, you do the same thing you did in practice. This is also true of most “performing arts”. But this is not true of team sports like soccer, basketball, hockey and of jazz and improve. You do practice, but the competition or performance could end up being nothing like you practiced for.

I think this is a great way to approach life. You prepare yourself for an improv show, but you have no idea what’s going to actually happen on stage. Life is the same way. You prepare yourself for what life is going to be like, and it never ends up being the way you planned. I think that most people would agree: their lives are nothing like what they first thought it would be, and if it is, there were still many big surprises along the way.

In the past people had a good idea what they would be doing in many years: doing the same job their parents did, living with a spouse around the same area you were raised. This is simply no longer the case in today’s world. Our lives are constantly shifting and changing – crazy events, opportunities and people enter our life and can alter its course a great deal. And that is something you can never be totally ready for. Who is ever ready for something like 9/11 or a profound spiritual experience or a friend who encourages you to do something you have never done before?

Am I saying that preparation is unnecessary? No. I’m saying that our education should seek to model improvisational techniques that allow for many options. The founder of sIMPs, Patricia Ryan Madson, wrote a book called Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, which aptly describes the attitude that I am talking about. She lists 13 maxims, several of which I think are highly applicable to my conception of education

Don’t Prepare – I don’t she really means not preparing at all but just not to overthink or overplan for something because you never really know how it’s going to be until you get there

Just Show Up – Make sure to get there, wherever “there” is. Woody Allen once said that the key to success in life is just showing up. If you are scared about meeting new people, trying something risky, just remember that showing up is half the battle.

Start Anywhere – similarly, if you are worried about how best to begin a project, don’t fret. Just jump in and figure it out as you go along.

Pay Attention – if you are going into something with minimal specific preparation, you have to learn on the ground – meaning you have to pay attention to what’s going on.

Make Mistakes, Please – Recognize that no one is perfect and life is difficult. You learn more when you make mistakes than when you succeed right way.  If you go in expecting, almost trying to make mistakes, you will be less frustrated and learn a lot more.

Take Care of Each Other – Sometimes in an improv show, one person will flounder and struggle, that’s when you need to help that person out and smooth out the show.

Enjoy the Ride – improvisation is a process, not an end result. Too many people look at life as a series of “accomplishments” or “goals achieved”. Having and achieving goals is a wonderful and worthwhile thing. But it is important to remember to enjoy your life as you work to achieve those goals. After all, you don’t put off enjoying a song until the end, do you?

Shakespeare said the world’s a stage and men and women are merely players. I’d say we are all definitely improv players, so it would be good to learn the ways of the game.

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2 comments
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Mikayel Currim
Mikayel Currim

That's a really good book. Another one I highly recommend is "Impro" by Keith Johnstone. It's divided into 4 chapters, and offers a really unique perspective. You can come borrow it anytime.

Matthew Lundquist
Matthew Lundquist

I recently started a blog to promote my new book, and googled "improv and education," the subject of the book. I was so pleased to read this entry, and looked around your blog a bit. Seems we have some things in common (most certainly an interest in changing the world). Check out my blog (www.unscriptedlearning.blogspot.com).

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