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Posts tagged mistakes in improv

Early on in my improv life, I did a set where I played a heroin addict. (My scene partner’s character had AIDS, so presumably we needed some comic relief.)

Doing my best Sid and Nancy impression, I mimed jamming a syringe repeatedly into my left leg.

When second beats rolled around, I decided to do a time dash. Hopping on one leg, I held my foot behind me.

The only problem was, in my haste to initiate, it appeared that my right leg had been amputated.

Instead of taking this gift from the comedy gods, I “corrected” myself and switched legs, thus destroying the reality that had already been established – and that everyone had seen.

Things deteriorated from there (if that’s possible), and by third beats…well…to quote Mark Twain, “Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.”

It took me a while to understand that so-called mistakes are a gift.

If I hadn’t been hell-bent on doing the “right” thing, my teammates and I could have played with the fact that my good leg got amputated.

Maybe the doctor was also an addict, and he operated while he was high. Maybe the hospital realised their error, and in the third beat I’d be legless. Who knows?

Not my brain.

The second you find yourself judging what’s already happened, put your focus on what’s here now.

It’s all that ever matters.

“The biggest laughs I’ve ever had in my life are something going off the rails, something going wrong, something happening that wasn’t supposed to happen. And improv teaches you not to fear those moments; that’s where the gold is.” – Conan O’Brien

Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

As an improviser, you know the importance of play. If you’re not having fun and being silly, if you’re not in a playful state on stage or in rehearsal – the dreaded “in your head” zone – it’s really hard to have a great scene.

As John Cleese discussed in his brilliant speech on creativity (click here to watch), play is vital not just in the arts, but in every endeavour that requires creative thinking, from engineering to brain surgery.

The problem, according to Ken Robinson, is that creativity is systematically driven out of us by the time most of us are adults. The main reason? Fear of making mistakes; of somehow getting it wrong. And that’s an issue not only for improvisers, but for everyone. Because creativity isn’t just a “nice to have,” it’s a must if we’re to evolve as a civilization.

Of all the TED Talks I’ve seen, this one resonates the most. I’ve probably watched it a dozen times, and will watch it dozens more. Click below to view.

If you enjoyed this video, check out his RSA Animate talk here, and his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.