You are beautiful when you are free

This was the on the USSRNR Blog today:

The introduction to Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin (geeky sidenote for me: I am sitting at a table at Northwestern Settlement. This settlement house is the second oldest in Chicago, founded in 1893, to Hull House’s 1891. Hull House was where Neva Boyd created and workshopped many of the improvisation exercises that Spolin adapted into her teaching. When you are participating in improvisation, you’re part of a history going back over a hundred years, and that’s just in this country.) throws down some pretty compelling reading:

            Everyone can act. Everyone can improvise. Anyone who wishes to can play in the theater and learn to become “stageworthy.”

            We learn through experience and experiencing, and no one teaches anyone anything. This is as true for the infant moving from kicking to crawling to walking as it is for the scientist with equations.

            If the environment permits it, anyone can learn whatever he or she chooses to learn, and if the individual permits it, the environment will teach everything it has to teach. “Talent” or “lack of talent” have little to do with it.

            We must consider what is meant by “talent.” It is highly possible that what is called talented behavior is simply a greater individual capacity for experiencing. From this point of view, it is in the increasing of the individual capacity for experiencing that the untold potentiality of a personality can be evoked.

            Experiencing is penetration into the environment, total organic involvement with it. This means involvement on all levels: intellectual, physical, and intuitive. Of the three, the intuitive, most vital to the learning situation, is neglected.

Last week I asked Levin for a direction on this post and he suggested elaborating on who is my greatest influence in improv. I immediately knew the answer: my Level Four teacher at iO, T.J. Jagodowski, who later became my director,  fellow player, and friend.

T.J. is one of the most compelling improvisers working today, at least in part because he has a tremendous individual capacity for experiencing. He is as tapped into the “untold potentiality of a personality” as anyone I have ever met or seen live. My friend Tom Blandfarb, who has taken copious personal development workshops and had numerous self-actualization training experiences (including time in Native American sweat lodge), refers to him as “shamanic.”  T.J. has a shocking ability to synthesize and recreate details of people, places, and moments, and live them with startling clarity, honesty, and intuition on stage.

As a teacher, he brought this same kind of remarkable intuition, knowing how to coax honest, compelling scene work and participation from the whole class, regardless of knowledge or innate ‘ability.’ The notes from his Level 4 class at iO are not just good notes for improvising, but often for being human:

  • Decide to make a choice and decide to invest in it.
  • It is a valiant effort to support before you understand.
  • The scene is already happening. Just get out of the way.
  • You’re so unimportant in a scene.
  • Never do anything onstage your partner can’t see. They need that information more than anybody.
  • Improv says you’re already perfect. The fact that you have made it this far in life means you have everything you will ever need in a scene.
  • You don’t fully know who you are until you see it reflected in your partner’s face.
  • The words don’t matter. The emotional information behind them is everything.
  • Student: Is it a bad idea to be jokey? TJ: Almost always, yeah.
  • This should feel easy.
  • You are beautiful when you are free.

He also gave the best suggestions ever. One day he was feeding first-line initiations for scenes, and he randomly tossed out, “No, maybe you didn’t hear me. There’s a cougar in my bedroom!”

The reason he’s my biggest influence in improvisation is that beyond his teaching (and practicing) beautiful, generous work, I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to live down that final maxim.

You are beautiful when you are free.

2 Comments

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2 Responses to You are beautiful when you are free

  1. Andrew Newton

    Truly great post Mark! I’ve never had T.J. for a teacher (though I suppose I did by proxy by having you) and those notes are invaluable. That final maxim is something I’m just going to say over and over again to myself before going on stage.

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