In the first part of my interview with authors of Life Unscripted: Using Improv Principles to Get Unstuck, Boost Confidence, and Transform Your Life , we got a psychiatrist’s take on how the tools of improv can be invaluable in everyday life in terms of overcoming self-judgement, and redefining your relationship with the world and others around you.
In part two, I chat with Dan O’Connor, who is a seasoned improv veteran and founder of Theatresports LA and Impro Theatre. We get deeper into the lessons improv performance can teach you, and how to apply those lessons to improve your life.
Notice how the improviser Jeff answers almost all by questions with a “yes.” It’s improv at work in life, just like they write about in the book!
(Note: some of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity)
B: I heard Jeff’s side of things, but can you tell me from your point of view the origin story of this book?
D: Yes Jeff was taking classes from me in ‘90s and using what I taught him in class in his residency. We talked about writing a book a long time ago, and it went away for like a decade. Finally about three years ago we really got to thinking about it. We thought how can we go to interesting places and training centres that were not necessarily about improv but more about human achievement or something more altruistic. Then we met over the holidays one year and started writing it….
I was extremely lucky that my first writing partner was extremely nice. Jeff is very nice, and interesting, when Jeff and I started working together it was just so easy because we said yes to each other a lot... and the other person was totally accepting.I think the good thing about our partnership is the radical acceptance of, “okay, let’s go your way.”
B: I was going to ask whether the process of writing a book together is made easier applying improv techniques to a writing process. It seems that’s true.
D: Yah. And that was true when I was writing sitcoms and features. There is a real sense of my feature writing partner and my television writing partner “yes, and-ing.” My television partner and who worked on a number of jobs together. He had been taking class around the same time that Jeff had been taking classes so we had a nice short hand when it came to writing.
Looking back on it, my feature writing partner and I would often have headbutting moments because her background was in stand-up, so it required a lot more negotiation, and was not as fluid as writing this book or writing for TV.
B: So improv can be applied across all kinds of writing scenarios?
D: Yes and also in my personal life. My wife is an improviser. We met doing improv. We worked together for a couple of years before we started dating, then we did an improv show in Vegas for a year. Living in the same hotel room and performing every night. So aside from a few minutes every day we were together 24/7. And I think improv went a long way in helping us.
B: There’s definitely a huge focus on the psychology of improv in this book. Was that always an interest of yours or something you noticed? Or something you learned and explored with Jeff?
D: I think it’s something I experienced over time. The first time I started thinking about how the brain works using improv, wasn’t so much out of curiosity. When I first started to improvise in San Francisco in 1986, in my first four years in LA Theatresports we had two very gifted improvisers, Wayne Brady, and Brad Sherwood (both ended up on Who’s Line is it Anyway).
So those two guys, in teaching, I would try to explain to people that I’m a right brain improviser and these two are left brain improvisers. Wayne and Brad are so gifted, they can see the rhyme a verse and a chorus away. Whereas I’m doing my best to be very zen about it to let my subconscious come through with the rhyme. I’m subconsciously engaged with the rhyme scheme and that works for me.
In our company, Impro theatre, our directors are gifted enough that they can follow you. We drill all the song structure. But for a lot of people, you forget the structure and sing knowing the structure is in your bones. In shows that have specific rhyme schemes and structures put me in a place in my head that made me not the joyous improviser that I am in other scenarios.
One of our company members, Michele Spears, says we’re like Jazz musicians, we study our scales, and we practice our scales and practice and practice. And when we get on stage we let rip. And if were improvising something in the style of Anton Chekhov, or Shakespeare or Jane Austen, we know we’ve done our homework and can get out of our way.
I think it’s a Keith Johnstone quote that goes, “get out of your way, it’s none of your business.” Which I love a lot. My wife and I have talked about this a lot. When we’re having a great night, there’s a flow, not unlike with basketball players describe when you’re really into the game. Everything slows down and its relaxed and effortless. And that’s when I feel I’m at my best.
One of our influencers have been Patsy Rodenberg and The Second Circle... We’ve incorporated her work into what were doing. We like to say we are a theatre company not an improv troupe. Because we’re performing theatre, it just isn’t written. We’re using any number of theatre techniques and training to be in a place where we can improvise a full length play every night without a script and we can have it hold together and be engaging for the audience.
B: That’s impressive thing to do. I remember the first time I saw narrative improv. It’s challenging to make it seem not challenging.
D: Yes. There’s a great quote from Alexandra Billings, one of the things she talked about is, there is no off stage. It’s all about being present in the moment. We don’t come to the theatre to watch you work. We come to the theatre to be changed by whatever your presenting. We don’t come to see you be a very good method actor, we come to hear a story. So all these methods we’re learning are to help us tell more engaging stories.
B: It seems you’d have to be present in your “real life” to recognize what your story is and how that can be put into a theatre format, or on stage.
D: Yes. And that’s one of the thing we talked a lot about [in the book]. Is how will this translate to your real life is being present. You may feel your attention drifting away from the person you’re speaking to. But just like meditation, you’re taught to go back to your breath if your mind starts to wander. But what we’re saying is go back to the person. Yah, you may be drifting away and not paying attention. But hide in plain sight and say, “I’m sorry I drifted away for a moment, what were you saying?” and then double down on your engagement with them. And be as Patsy Rodenburg would say, be in second circle with them.
We were interviewed by a magazine last week, and one of the things we were saying was if you’re interested your interesting.
If you want people to pay attention to you, you have to pay attention to them. The idea that curiosity is a massively underused tool in modern communication. People tend to be in silos or be thinking about only themselves instead of really being engaged with the other person. And really listening to the other person. Because what that does is demonstrated and interest and curiosity in them which in turn opens them up and allows them to be vulnerable in the conversation with you and be interested in what you’re doing. But it’s only through really being interested in them that can happen.
B: I just have one more question, I asked Jeff a similar thing, in the book you have the concept of Buddy (Chapter 4) and critical voices in your head. So maybe you could expand on self criticism when it comes to improv.
D: I think people on and off stage have a lot of self-criticism. Having to train yourself to say alright well that happened, nobody died, so I'm going to let that go. But i need to apologize if i accidentally block somebody or didn't hear their offer I might say to them after, “hey I’m sorry I stepped on that line of yours.” I might do a little bit of repair. But we really preach and teach to let it go. Unless you were rude or unkind in some way, that moment has happened. There’s nothing you can do about that moment, it has happened. So do your repair and move on. Learn from it and see it as an opportunity.
And the same thing is true with life offstage, there are moments where you make a mistake, like the one in the book is you call your colleague by the wrong name, and you get that cold ice bath of, “oh my god, I’m a horrible person.” But 95% of the time, that moment is gone for the other person. And if you keep dwelling on it, you’re wasting time, you’re wasting energy, and to a certain extent, you’re torturing yourself by judging yourself that harshly.
There’s a lot of Monday-morning-quarterbacking where people will torture themselves after the show. They’ll say I could have done this, or could have done that. They’ll start replaying the shows in their head and see opportunities where they could have made other choices. And really, as a director what I tell them to do is [think] “well that moment happened, what is the process by which you can either let that habit go or the contextual thing go?”
Like if you didn’t hear the offer, maybe you need to be more in second circle. One thing we tell everybody whether they’re arriving for a show or arriving for a job interview is “how do you show up? Are you present when you walk into the office for a job interview, are you really there?”...
What we try to talk about whether we’re teaching a group of engineers at Cisco or a bunch of actors, is arrive present. If you need to sit in your car for a second and take some deep breaths and just get present with yourself rather than bringing your road rage into the space. That’s huge.
I want to thank Dan and Jeff for sharing their time and insight. Read the first part of the interview with Dr. Jeff Katzman here.
If you want to read the book, you can buy a copy here, or come down to our M-B improv library where we have a copy you can borrow.
If you’ve gotten this far, and have never tried improv yourself, be sure to sign up for Level One starting again in January.