Why Life is (and isn’t) Like Improv

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There’s nothing like exam season to motivate me to write a blog for the first time in ages! It’s something about the impending doom, the scent of failure permeating the air, that just makes me want to run away from my revision as soon as I start.

Upon finally reaching the sufficient level of panic which motivates me to study, I spent seven hours in the library yesterday, studying hard, and only checking my phone once every two hours. Today, however, was a different beast entirely. Rather than the comforting monotony of making notes from lecture slides, I was stuck in the hellish abyss of essay planning. The difference between writing essays and revising for exams, is that when you write essays you have to actually think for yourself. And today, my brain refused to cooperate.

For my essay, I have to close-read a number of things related to fan culture. Instead, I found myself close-reading comments on facebook posts and analysing the significance of them based on a variety of contextual factors. I could easily have written an entire essay on the products of my over-thinking, yet I couldn’t collect my thoughts enough for the essay I have to write. I remember my English Literature exam in 1st year, where I hadn’t memorised enough poetry quotes, so I wrote about a poem called “this poem intentionally left blank”, and analysed the lack of words. Today I found myself analysing the meaning of messages that were never sent, imagining up some grand conspiracy linking every confusing occurrence in my life to some overarching plot. Stories aren’t just told through words, they’re told through the blank spaces. Stories exist between the chapters, between the lines, and sometimes the absence of answers is an answer in itself.

Last month I was telling a friend about some memory from during the summer, and she said it sounded like a scene from a movie. Since then, I have realised that every memory from that particular narrative arc is cinematic in my head. Whilst each scene is beautifully shot and perfectly lit, the movie was a failure. It ended before it began, as though characters had been killed off before the plot could climax. And instead all I have in my head are pretty pictures which give me no answers, no matter how much I analyse them. I’m a film student, after all: analysing the significance of images and motifs is what I’ve been trained to do.

I used to think my life would be like a novel. Last year I was convinced my life was a TV series. And aspects of my life are like movie scenes. But what I realised today, is that none of those similes were accurate.

After spending five hours at the library, I went to a cafe to “study” with my friend. (By study, I mean she attempted to make notes, whilst I had an existential crisis, and spent an hour over-thinking whilst my laptop installed updates). As I lamented to my friend about how my life was not a movie and there was no grand narrative, and some loose ends would never be tied up, I came to a realisation. Life is not like some scripted thing, life is like improv. You have to work with the prompts you’re given. Last year, my life was filled with juicy prompts. Sure, things got rather absurd, but at least it was interesting. This semester, my life has been given really boring prompts. It’s like going onstage full of energy and passion, and the audience gives you a prompt like “you’re washing dishes” “your relationship is ‘co-workers’” “your location is a public toilet”, and no matter how hard you try to make it interesting, you just can’t pull it off. (Admittedly, any of those prompts could make a great scene, but I can’t think of anything more dull off the top of my head).

Maybe it’s not the prompts after all, I thought as I was walking home. What if it’s my scene-partners? My life this semester feels like trying to improvise a scene with someone who blocks your every move. I can say “yes, and–” all I like, but if I’m constantly met with a “no”, there’s nothing I can do to progress the scene.

I saw this TED talk on youtube a couple of months ago, about how the difference between improv and regular theatre is that there’s no room for egos in improv. You have to make your scene-partner look good. Everything you do should be to make them shine, and they should do the same for you. Improv is about lifting the other person up, not just drawing attention to your own presence. Improv, like life, is a collaboration.

Yet somehow in my life I seem to be a magnet for people who don’t lift me up. And if I put all of my energy into feeding the ego of someone who thinks they’re the best thing since sliced bread, I’m not doing myself any favours. The difference between improv and real life, is that sometimes in real life you have to stop saying “yes, and?” and start saying “no”. Say no to mourning the loss of people who weren’t good for you, say no to beating yourself up over a situation where you tried your hardest, say no to blaming yourself for other people’s faults, say no to living in the past, or worse, trying to live in a future that will never come into being.

I have lived my life with a “yes, and?” attitude. I have been brave, I have taken chances. I’ve been honest about my feelings. I have been vulnerable. I have pushed myself out of my comfort zone. But every time I said “yes, and?” I was met with a “no”. Or worse, I was met with silence. Can you imagine improvising a scene with a person who does not respond to anything you do? It is no longer a collaboration, it is a monologue, a one-woman plea to make something out of nothing. Lately I feel like I’ve been putting on my greatest performance, with an absent scene-partner and a non-existent audience. I am given a prompt, and my mind spirals into chaos, jumps to all kinds of conclusions, enacts all kinds of absurdities…and it will never go anywhere, because I am all alone on the stage, screaming into the void.

What if the only thing I should be saying “no” to is the belief that life is anything other than improvised? Perhaps I’ve spent the past year living in an improv scene and trying to turn it into a film? This is a different kind of narrative. I have focused so much on signs that turned out to be coincidences, on trying to form a picture from all these clues, yet when I add them up, the picture they should point to is nothing like the reality they make. There is no script, there is no pre-planned narrative. Not every question that’s asked will be answered. All we have are our prompts, but at least we can choose how we take them.

I am walking into this scene as a student of film and philosophy and literature, and I am analysing the absence of words. I am analysing the responses I never got, analysing my own words, whilst a voice in my head plays the audience and yells “should’ve said” when it’s too late for me to do anything about it. But I can still choose how I play this scene. I can choose what to do with the prompt I’m given, I can make the normal become absurd, and transform the absurd into normal. And maybe a few people have said “no” lately, but right now my life is filled with a whole lot of people saying “yes, and” to me, and they will carry this scene forward.

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