Improvisation unlocks the magic of spontaneity and connection


All told, we’ve collaborated to offer eleven Restorying retreats over the last two years, with more in the planning stages. They’ve come to have a dynamic balance between structure and improvisation. We are learning as leaders to be present and notice the field, to give ourselves over to what wants to happen next, what the earth is dreaming for us. Within a framework of ritual and ceremony, poetry and mythic time and space, we enter the door that leads to the realm of heart and soul and mystery.

Themes, questions, and insights begin to weave into and through the assembled group from the first gathering. We are getting better at tuning into that and inviting participants to join in the fun of giving ourselves over to what Mystery wants to do with us. It reminds me of what Malcolm Gladwell had to say about improvisation in his book, Blink. Using basketball as an example, he wrote that in practice, the players drill patterns and set-ups relentlessly, and then every game is totally improvisational. The patterns are strung together in completely new ways in every game, every moment. I can guess from the way my son talks about soccer that it’s much the same.

As is Improv itself, of course. We learn and practice games and techniques like callbacks and repeats, tag-outs and one-upmanship. During a scene, you have a whole repertoire of games and patterns to draw from, plus the added excitement of a bunch of other people who each have their own ideas for the scene. Flexibility and attention—to the others, to what is said and done, to details—are key to deploying the games and patterns. The only way to do all this is to be in the moment, which requires a great deal of trust and letting go of expectations and plans.

Improvisation is profoundly liberating and connecting, when done in this spirit of openness and discovery. When everything is working, something happens that Improv players call “group mind,” like wiring a bunch of people’s brains together in a virtual neural network. Del Close, one of the fathers of modern improv, visualizes it this way:

“A melding of the brains occurs on stage. When improvisers are using seven or eight brains instead of just their own, they can do no wrong! Time slows down, and the player has a sense of where he is. . . . On stage, one has a complete picture of what is going on, and also a clear sense of all potential moves. They are almost laid out in time. The pattern-making mechanism is kicked on, and yet, one’s intellect does not desert him. Somehow, the improviser . . . can almost see time as a dimension, as he can almost see his potential moves extend physically into the future. It’s then very easy to decide which move to choose, and then go with it. Since everyone is on the same wavelength, each player sees what the other sees. It’s an absolute thrill, a tremendous surge of confidence, energy, and joy. I’ve given up searching for happiness, now that I realize joy is very easily achieved!” (p. 87-88, Truth in Comedy)

I love the potential for Improv to model a way into new stories that is so creative and joyful, and especially collaborative. We can get caught up in the story that change is hard, people are unwilling, you have to do all the heavy lifting yourself, be forceful, keep slogging on, shoving that rock uphill. What if that’s not the way at all! Why not use nature as our mentor and model?

Nature has a mind-boggling assortment of structures and patterns, at all scales from sub-atomic to microscopic to ecosystemic to Gaian, within which endless variety, problem solving and individuality arise. Think of zebras, for instance, or leaves or snowflakes. Nothing ever happens the same way twice. Everything is replayed moment by moment. There is only now, and now, and now.

This sort of biomimetic improvisation could have a wide applicability in the larger context of our culture and institutions, workplaces, families and communities. An international group called the “Applied Improv Network” brings games to groups of people, helping them to think more creatively and collaborate better. It’s a way to keep people fresh and in tune with the deeper field of consciousness holding them, and to encourage them to be nimble, flexible, in the moment, and present to each other.

Improv could help people see that our work is less about accomplishing a predetermined objective than about participating in an ongoing unfolding of newness and possibility, stepping into a stream that is both new and ancient, full of snow melt from spring and also fed by deep underground aquifers.

While it’s possible to speculate how this could change institutions, starting with the simple unit of people gathering, it sells itself when you can experience what it feels like to be in an improvisational scene. It feels alive, fresh, creative, vibrant, exciting, surprising, edgy, unpredictable, exhilarating, unscripted. Indeed, part of living into new stories is to throw away our old scripts, and instead listen, tune in to what our creative partners want to do with us. These are scene partners in Improv, co-workers in the workpace, and in Restorying retreats, even other-than-human beings—hawks, trees, fungus, streams—chime in.

Once you get used to the spaciousness of being unscripted and you have patterns and games and structures to work with, improvisation is a wonderful way to short-circuit anxiety. All my life, I’ve participated in planning: simple, elaborate, solo, complex teams, as a peon doing a boss’s bidding, and as a boss myself. Always, a level of anxiety runs the background. Will this plan work? What might go wrong? What haven’t we foreseen? If the plan derails, then what?

All that planning we do as a matter of course, habit and training dulls us and keeps us from noticing the real signs of life all around. This rigidity of hardening into plans is itself a cause of anxiety. Especially now, when our problems seem intractable and insurmountable, we humans seem to have painted ourselves into a corner with climate change, species extinction, political wrangling, power plays, greed, violence, corruption, the list seems endless. Maybe the best thing we can do is to point ourselves in an entirely different direction of joy, creativity and love.

“Remember: if you want to make progress on the path and ascend to the places you have longed for, the important thing is not to think much but love much, and so to do whatever best awakens you to love.” ~ St. Teresa of Avila

With Improv, there is a certain unease before you go on, mostly an odd feeling of not having a clue what is going to happen. But it’s a healthy excitement, a bright, positive energy of possibility that gets your attention and holds it. It’s impossible to check out or feel dull during an Improv scene. All of your senses are tingling and in tune. You’re capable of noticing things you never even wondered about before. You now have at your fingertips details about your scene partners—expressions, mood, energy level—a whole dimension of reality that usually goes along in the background, unnoticed. You might even imagine that dimension has been there all along, waiting to help us, if only we ask.

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