Improv skills lead to success

Improv and Control

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This post is the second in my series on learning about improv from non-improv authors. My current favorite book of that type is Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, in which Frederick has some very useful thoughts on control and the creative process.

Kinesthesiologists refer to walking as “controlled falling.” To move forward, you must first unbalance your body and then catch yourself before you hit the ground. This basic human activity illustrates our lives perfectly. Not only must we create an imbalance to make progress; we have to do so repeatedly. In a similar vein, human existence is about the struggle to control one’s environment. Whether you arrange your work area so you’re comfortable or you go after a job, you think will make you happy, you’re fighting for control.

Improv groups that rely on a single, more or less controlling individual can do good work, but in many cases the group’s performances will be something less than the sum of its parts. As Frederick points out, “properly gaining control of the design process tends to feel like one is losing control of the design process.” In another context, racing great Mario Andretti said, “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.” Improv teams are just like other groups in that everyone is responsible for everyone else’s success. When a performer makes a choice on stage, it is everyone’s job to make that choice work.

In relation to architectural design, Frederick says that every choice must be justified in at least two ways. In improv, justification means incorporating an offer into a scene. There are times when players make multiple offers and only one can be taken up, or someone could make an offer that truly can’t be incorporated without wrecking the scene, but among experienced players those incidents are exceedingly rare. Yes, you always want to make great offers, but Frederick argues that a beautiful composition is the result of a harmonious relationship among the design elements, not a grouping of the most beautiful elements available.

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