Posts tagged Pondward Bound

Simon Pond is naturally funny, the way some people are naturally thin, or Kanye and Kim are naturally going to implode.

Like many great improvisers, Simon is also frighteningly smart. When he’s not doing archaeological digs or sampling fine wines, you can find him performing with Pondward Bound, Second City’s The Bench, as well as CCA-nominated sketch troupe Jape. You may also recognize him from How To Spot An Improviser

Photo © Nicole White

Today I want to share with you some things about the brain and improv that I have been thinking a lot about lately. You may find it boring and useless, which is probably why we don’t hang out together.

I am not really an expert in brain science, but I have had the joy of spending time with a lot of very smart people who study everything from the neuroscience of rat olfaction, to the link between art and the early human brain. That said, all of the mistakes and oversights in this post are purely my own. Unless I am confronted, then I will blame them.

When I am not improvising, I am a graduate student at Trent University working towards an M.A. in Archaeology. My thesis project involves studying the link between early human stone tools and early human cognitive abilities. It is going okay, thank you for asking.

The interesting thing about the evolution of the human brain is that over the last six million years we evolved these massive calorically-expensive brains that we carry around in our heads. The most interesting and enigmatic question of human evolution is probably, “Why such big brains?” It turns out that these big brains support a variety of behaviours that are uniquely developed in humans. The most notable of these behaviours is language, but the list also includes such things as complex tool use, advanced planning ability, artistic representation, music, and maybe even a sense of humour.

The literature on the biological and evolutionary basis for humour is pretty mixed. A good amount of it focuses on the differences between men and women, which in my opinion is probably unproductive at best. However, there is some good, thoughtful work out there. My readings have led me to a few conclusions:

• One, humour is a real thing and is a pan-human phenomenon.

• Two, humour is an adaptive, or the direct by-product of an adaptive behaviour (meaning it exists for a reason).

• And three, the base of all humour is the combination of two somewhat incongruous ideas. Don’t think about the last point too much, it will make you less funny.

But being funny in improv isn’t really the same as sitting around a paleolithic campfire and cracking wise. In fact, anybody who has ever performed comedy knows that the formalized setting of a comedic performance makes it very different from just making jokes with friends. Unfortunately, nobody has really taken the time to figure out what happens in the brain during improv from a psychological perspective (at least not anybody I have been able to find). So instead we must turn to studies of the “other” improv, musical improvisation.

In my experience, there seems to be a startlingly high number of neuroscientists who like to dabble in jazz music. Or perhaps, there are just a startling low number of people in my social group who perform jazz music. Either way, one of these neuroscientists was nice enough to decide to combine his two passions and study what areas of the brain are used during the performance of improvised music (Limb and Braun 2008).

Limb and Braun took a number of highly skilled jazz musicians and put them inside an MRI machine, which is able to determine in real time, which areas of the brain are active during a particular behaviour. He gave the musicians a little plastic keyboard (as a metal one would be incredibly dangerous in an MRI machine) and had them play both a standard learned song, as well as some improvised music.

When he compared the two samples, he found that there were some real differences in which parts of the brain were used during improvisation. Most interestingly, he found that there was a decreased use in areas that are concerned with goal orientation and self-monitoring. The author suggests that this sort of release of inhibition may be necessary in general for creative output.

Perhaps the old UCB adage of “Don’t think” is not completely accurate, as you really do have to use your brain to integrate a series of complex ideas while improvising. Instead, highly-skilled improv happens when we “don’t plan” and “don’t judge.” If you are an improviser you probably know that already, but now you have science to back you up! I take comfort in that. If you do too, we should probably hang out.

Limb CJ, Braun AR (2008) Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: an fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE 3(2): e1679.
(There is also a TED Talk on the subject. Click here to view it.)

Steve Hobbs is a wicked smart improviser and an old soul. If you need proof, just read this post. He’s a member of the indefatigable Harold team El Fantoma, the indefinable Jenkins Syndrome, and is a featured player in Pondward Bound’s duos night.

Hi, I’m Steve, and I’m dedicating this blog to a man who doesn’t think he’s read anything good today.

I’ve had an improv-related mental itch that’s needed scratching for a while, but have had a lot of trouble figuring out what it was or how to scratch it. You know what I’m talking about: a real thorn in the brain-paw, something I couldn’t quite get my head wrapped around.

The closest I’ve come to phrasing it is, “How did we/I just do that?” For all the moments where that amazing scenic moment happened effortlessly, or when the audience loves something you’re/I’m/we’re doing when it literally feels like it’s a non-move that’s being made, that question gets asked on some level.

Yeah, we know principles of good scene work, techniques, having a point of view, being “in the moment,” and we learn what works from experience and understanding, and for all remaining occasions those moments commonly get written off as the audience’s energy…but personally? I still ask that question.

There are still moments that don’t add up, and still people that will love how lost in that character one of us was when sometimes it didn’t feel like we were that lost in a character at all.

Am I crazy? Are some of these observations justified? What’s happening in those moments that you can only see from the audience? What am I missing?

It was finally laid out plainly for me (through the most seemingly unrelated scenario possible) when I was playing a 10-minute duo set last week, and found myself in the classic pre-show position of having to take a huge dump (ladies, please, hold your applause).

There was no time, I put it out of mind, and soldiered on. It was a fun set; I performed with a player pulled lottery-style from the audience, we both made some moves (intimate prison cell guard vs. inmate about-to-be-released relationship), and sure enough, I ended up taking some focus to “drop a deuce” in the corner of my cell like a good little bran-filled inmate.

Now, this in itself wasn’t too unusual for me, and I didn’t think twice about it at the time. I’ve become all too familiar with sets becoming affected by topics shuffled around pre-show. In fact, it’s uncanny how in a four-set night, the first group having the over-the-top baby-birthing scene will produce at least two subsequent sets with heavy baby emphasis. Uncanny, but typical as hell. I talked about pooping, I pooped while in character, I went on with my day. So what?

So this: when I got off-stage and the intermission came, I was completely empty. There was no round in the chamber, the kids were unavailable for the pool drop-off, the turtle had defied aquatic science and was no longer in the shell somehow. “Large intestine? Cancel my one o’clock”. Totally empty, totally satisfied. That’s not normal for me, or anyone, I think.

Now, with respect to the average person’s intelligence, I’m not suggesting that my colon became some magical gateway to another universe’s toilet, or that my asshole is the Matrix and that particular load realized there was no spoon and woke up in the asshole of the real. This article isn’t (supposed to be) about poop.

What I’m saying is, this realization brought me face to face with an entity that I have a lot of trouble perceiving, and is frequently danced around while left unidentified in my own improv equations. What am I talkin’ ‘bout Willis? I’m talking about my/the unconscious.

Having taken psych classes and group-dynamics training as a camp counselor, I’ve known for a few years that a) the unconscious mind isn’t supposed to be perceivable (memory and sub-conscious recall memory recall fits into the “pre-conscious” in Freudian models), and b) one of my most difficult challenges has been learning to perceive the things I don’t know I’m doing that others can already perceive. (Take a gander at the Johari window for a crash course in that perception relationship.)

image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In fact, I made it a goal of mine to spend the last few years coming to better understand and harness those intricacies in general. But I hadn’t previously considered that, with regard to show tendencies and perception, it’s possible the difficult-to-perceive thing coming through is my unperceivable unconscious mind (which explains a lot, and may or may not have let me poop without pooping)!

Is that what’s being seen? Is my unconsciousness making subtle moves on stage that my conscious isn’t registering? It’s like being Bruce Banner and finding out that Hulk has been taking chemistry classes while I’ve been dreaming. “Have I been sleeping later? Have I been Hulking out longer and longer?”

It fits though – we go to improv school and get trained in all these techniques and skill sets (callbacks, dialogue patterns, scene structuring, thematic work, even “Yes and” etc.), hoping to imprint it so we don’t have to think about it (arguably accessed through the pre-conscious), and meanwhile, what do we value most in longform scenework? Affecting each other. Discovery. Relationships. Truth in comedy. Things that aren’t pre-thought out, and shouldn’t be (formula can be cancer in these moments if it undercuts commitment to the moment).

In a world where we’re trained to both make choices and have points of views while truly reacting in the moment, maybe it’s the sincere presence of the unthinking unconscious in these characters/moments that makes them powerful.

Now, I’m not the first person to write about art and the unconscious, and don’t profess to be an expert on the topic, so I’m going to try to steer clear of getting further nerd-booky and technical with all of this. I can only speak to my own unconscious, and mine freaks the shit out of me.

I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the “id” lives in there, which means mine is selfish, and makes me want to punch enemies arbitrarily, and cheat on my girlfriend, and scream out during a school assembly as a kid because it’s too quiet, and be late for every event in my life, and fight bears for fun, and not care about anything, and a million, much more horrible things (these aren’t things I go out and do*, but they’re in there). If I let every scene run wild with unconscious, there’d be a lot of offended, unhappy audience members.

And I’ve had that moment of asking “how can this chaotic, compassionless beast be the missing part of the equation?” I mean, even if these impulses are the interesting, reactionary character elements that help make scenic moments great, there’s a bittersweet taint to it. Not just from needing to rely on part of yourself that’s largely un-fake-able and unquantifiable, but from selfish, consciousness-loving pride.

Consider for a second that the part of you that’s trying to make moves and be amazing – hell, the part of you that learns – could be doomed to come second place to the part of you that isn’t.

Realistically, I’m sure it’s a marriage. Just like the fun iO West team-dynamic discussion of teams balancing out highly structured robot players with highly impulsive pirate players (and silent credit-less ninja thinkers of course), a balance between the unconscious and consciousness in scenes is the best route to goodness.

I’m not sure what the balance is (is training just conditioning for the unconscious, or a series of filters?), but I know it’s there. I’ve done my best to look my own unconscious in the eye, and I think we’re coming to terms…though factoring in my frequent lateness, un-wake-able dreams, constant impulsive behaviour, and recently acquired ability to mentally cancel shitting, I’m pretty sure it’s a juggernaut and wearing the pants in this mental relationship.

Oh well.


*I may or may not fight a bear in my lifetime. I might actually go out and do that one.

Photo © Becky Feilders