I’m on top of a ridiculously tall building in a throbbing metropolis. Beside me there’s another skyscraper the same height, in the process of being built. Workmen are scurrying around the rooftop. A long metal platform juts out from the building’s edge. One guy strolls confidently out onto this platform holding his tools. Nothing but 50 floors of empty space below. As he nears the edge the slab sags a bit. A second man comes over. The platform sags even more, but neither of them seems to notice. I’m impressed by their nonchalance. But then as three more workers stroll out onto the platform toward the other two it tilts precipitously downward and detaches from its mooring.
From my vantage point, I think, “Isn’t this when people scream?” But I don’t scream.
Things flip into slow motion. The platform slides off the rooftop. The workers fly off the building dreamily, like astronauts in space. One, in Olympic high-dive style, goes off backwards. Another flies arms stretched out the way a skydiver does before deploying his parachute. They all descend from view. A moment later, the building implodes and vanishes.
This was the dream I had the third night of my vocal improv class. It was both a premonition of my being stuck the next morning, unable to improvise (me marooned on my own edifice), and a perfect illustration of how the class was building the skills and structures to enable us to leap off the proverbial musical cliff—and survive.
My dream itself is like an improv. Bits of the day’s events and my subconscious concerns reconstituted into a story that, while it may not meet all the normal requirements for logic, somehow in its magicness amplifies my world. What our awake brains may deem to be incongruous, our poetic mind may find bloody marvelous.
The trick to improv is to stop your forward-planning ego mind from taking over. Act only in the moment. There’s the fear that if you risk leaving your mind entirely open and don’t plan, what comes out of your mouth might be ridiculous, boring, nonsensical or even hideous. In fact, all of these are OK. Even if you don’t like what you did, you have the satisfaction that you risked. On the other hand, if you cheat, your contribution is inauthentic. You can feel it and likely so can others. It has none of the sheen of the freshly-released-in-the-now.
It does not resemble aerial dance. It thunks.
Great poems have the feeling of improv. The poet risked something in allowing the poem to come into being. “At every moment the poet must be ready to abandon any prior intention in welcome expectation of what the poem is beginning to signal,” says Dean Young in his book, The Art of Recklessness. Even further, he suggests that language must be “torn from its most stable position as unbiased reportage…and restored to poetry through willful derangement and the consecration of chance.” Poetry should “disrupt habituation.”
And that, my friends, is also the art of improv. You have a foundation of skills, of course, to expedite this launch into extemporaneity, but you have to risk yourself into order to access that raw spirit of expression. It also requires what our instructor Rhiannon calls “deep listening,” the cornerstone of effective improv and, I also believe, of writing authentically. Deep listening to the ever unfolding unknown which wants to be known.
And a little dose of derangement. And a dash of chance.