Dare to be Average

RfG Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 1 Fall, 1992

by Dan Diggles

I’ve been performing Improvisation professionally for over 9 years and have been teaching improvisation for 5 years. And I am continually surprised when people come up to me after a performance and say “How do you think of all that stuff?” What most people think is going on in good improvisation is not what is going on at all. Most people think good improvisors are being terribly clever. They’re not. They are being terribly obvious. They dare to be average.

I had 20 years of private, Catholic education. I was raised to conform. When Sister Beatrice Anne was facing 47 students in the 3rd grade, she didn’t want expressive individuals. Grades were determined according to standards . . . Math tests, legible handwriting, and God forbid, checkmarks in Courtesy. Even creativity was standardized.

Art in 4th grade consisted of tracing bunny rabbits. I remember our class being escorted around the Detroit Institute of Art and then asked to draw what we’d seen. I drew Julius LaRosa with measles. How? (a) I drew a figure because I wanted to, (b) I remembered my mom liked the Arthur Godfrey show, and (c) I finished before everyone else, so I went ahead and put red dots all over it. (My brother Mike had the measles.) I showed it to this very nice guide I’d hoped to impress. He compressed his lips, told me I wasn’t working hard enough, and stopped looking at me for the rest of the day. Fortunately my mother hung the picture in the kitchen and was delighted.

Everyone has had similar experiences, I’m sure. “If you conform to our standards we will help you discover who you are.” Television, I feel, is currently the most pernicious offender. The whole aim of commercial television is to make you dissatisfied with your life. If you’re not dissatisfied, you won’t buy things. So we learn (a) that we will find happiness, success and self-esteem by being other than our selves, and (b) this self-discovery takes a great deal of effort, if we are to believe our teachers (and money, if we are to believe TV).

I now believe what Keith Johnstone suggests: that self-expression and imagination should be as effortless as perceiving. In his book Impro he points out that it takes enormous mental gymnastics to recognize a face in a crowd, considering how little information our eyes actually receive and how many thousands of variations there are in the human face. And yet when you recognize your father, are you aware of any mental effort at all? (It’s only when you make a mistake in your perceptions and try to clarify it that you are aware of making any effort.)

A good improvisor knows that his imagination should be just as effortless, that his best choices are his first, obvious, “average” ones. A bad improvisor often monitors his first choice, labels it, “Not clever enough,” and then struggles to find a clever one. And it’s been my experience time and time again that he ends up simply conforming to some standardized “cleverness.” Ask an audience for a room in a house to start a scene in and inevitably some “clever” person will say “Bathroom.” Always. Ask for an occupation, and you’ll get “Proctologist” or “Gynecologist.”

Every night. We once asked for a location to start a scene, and a child said, “Under the dining room table.” “How clever,” someone said. How obvious. The kid was 3 feet tall and, I suspect, not out to impress anyone.

The hardest thing to convince improvisors is to trust their first obvious instinct. To dare to be average. If I ask for a loaf of bread, hand me a loaf of bread, not a flaming gerbil. If I say, “Dad,” say, “Yes, son,”. . . not “I’m not your father.” By starting with these basic, obvious choices, students begin to trust their first impulses. And I believe this is the first step towards healthy self-expression. The great life-lesson improv has taught me is that if you say what’s obvious to you, you will begin to parade before us a life that is unique and fascinating and not necessarily obvious to any one else. How could it be? No one has had the same life experiences you have had.

Brenda Ueland, in her book, If You Want to Write, calls imagination the Holy Spirit. She apologizes to those who might find her theology inaccurate, but I like it. I believe good improvisation . . . saying what is obvious, daring to be “average”. . . has helped me and my students re-discover this spirit.

What makes improvisation so successful as a tool is that it is fun. It must be fun. We are taught very young how important structure and organization is in our lives, and it’s true. But a piano teacher once told me to spend at least 10% of my practice time goofing around. Otherwise, he told me, I’d lose touch with what made me want to play the piano in the first place. Improvisation can put you back in touch with the obvious, “average” you. It can be scary because, in a world full of rules, there are no rules for “you.” Improvisation’s power is that it makes this journey fun.

Editor’s note: Dan Diggles is an instructor in the Theater Department of Wagner College, Staten Island, New York and is a veteran improviser with The New York Team for TheatreSports.