Several years ago, a friend of a friend who’d seen me in a couple of shows wanted to meet with me to discuss some film projects he was working on. He wanted someone with improv experience and he thought I might be a good fit. I met him at a café one evening. We started chatting and immediately it was going horribly. We weren’t connecting. Our conversation was choppy. I had that sinking feeling you get in your stomach when a job interview isn’t going well.
That’s when the light bulb went off: this was a job interview. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it was. Immediately I noticed our status relationship. He was, by his nature, being very low status. I, on the other hand, had come into the meeting very high status to make myself seem important or worthy of his consideration. That was all wrong for the situation. I adjusted my status to match his but come in a little beneath him, and instantly the interview turned. We connected and talked for hours, and I left with the part (except the films never got made).
If I had never taken improv classes, that would never have happened, but I would go one step further and say if I had never performed improv that never would have happened. In performance we talk a lot about the different “brains” you have to juggle all at once on stage. You have your character brain, your actor brain, and your writer/director brain all working all at once. When you get into one of those moments where all of those things are working at once (like they were in that interview) the world seems to slow way way down. You can hear everything someone is saying and respond, while you’re thinking about a couple other things at the same time.
But is that really being in the moment? Isn’t being in the moment about being focused on one thing?
If you’re in a scene and you’re focused entirely on the space object glass you’re holding, you’re going to miss everything else that’s going on in the scene. There are a lot of things happening at any given moment. The key to being in the moment isn’t narrowing your consciousness; it’s expanding it to be aware of everything that’s happening all at once. You’re tracking the space-object glass your holding; you’re watching what everyone else is doing; you’re listening to everything that they’re saying; you’re letting your character react to what’s happening, you’re observing and perhaps altering that reaction to align it with improv best-practices and your own comfort levels and abilities; you’re tracking the story of the entire show and altering your reaction to align with the most impactful narrative; you’re also aware of the audience and how they’re reacting; you’re aware of the temperature in the theater and if it’s time for intermission or for the show to end. Everything.
Before you think to yourself “that’s impossible! I can’t track all that at once,” you’re wrong. Your brain is already tracking all of that completely against your will. Our brains track every single f*cking thing that happens to us all f*cking the time. It’s annoying. In fact, it will literally drive you insane if you’re aware of it all the time. That’s why we’re really good at NOT being aware of all those things at once. You just need to realize that you are tracking them, and let the different parts of your brain talk to each other in ways we don’t ordinarily let them.
Learn how to be aware of everything in a controlled way that you can turn on and off and not be overwhelmed by. If the mere thought of that is overwhelming, that’s probably good and normal. Realize that you don’t need to be aware of EVERYTHING. Just try to expand your consciousness to include a larger set of things than the one or two we typically focus on. I’m not saying that’s easy, but that’s the goal. And it’s a goal that improv can help you achieve.