The Potter’s Wheel

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Kind reader, I get so frustrated sometimes! I want to sit down with the shamans of creation and find out how to revolutionize this thing we do already! You see, I’ve done improv for a medium amount of time. I’m not a lifer yet, but I’m headed that way and the shock of surprise and awe stops after you’ve seen all the scenes there are (sorry darling, there are only so many scenes) a couple dozen times. Is this something bad to reveal to you reader? No, you are worldly-wise and filled with the delight of the universe: revelations like this neither alarm or disenchant you.

So what do we do? Well, seeing improv stay on the same worn pathways – circling and circling the track like a horse who has only just realized that running as fast as he can will not open up any new territory—makes me get an itch in the belly. Surely we can dress improv up, make it riskier, make it more specific, have shows that pop with fresh life and evolve beyond the strictures we’ve set! If anything can be done on stage, there is no excuse for a sense of stagnation.

And yet.

And yet have I, or anyone for that matter, nailed it yet?

Does anyone get up on a stage and churn out flawless scenes that always enchant and are as elegant as Russian ballet.

No.

Even the best practitioners of this art, those who have decades under their belt, simply have a higher batting average: no one is all home runs every show.

My father in law is a potter. He makes cups, bowls, and plates, and every once in a while something that isn’t one of those things. But he has hundreds and hundreds of cups. I’ve seen him work all day at cups. Trying to get one shape. He says that in China they’d teach pottery by having a student throw a cup on the potter’s wheel, let it dry to see its shape fully, and how close it came to perfection, then smash the cup, and put the dry clay of the cup back in water to make fresh clay. Over and over again the student wouldn’t bake or finish a piece of their pottery for years. Just sculpt, smash, sculpt again. Trying to make their hands know the shape of the pottery. Trying to teach their bodies & minds perfection of form.

The lesson of this has always been hard for me. I am an idea person. You say “I have an idea” and I say “let’s do it right now!” I’ve always thrown cool parties. I have adventures. But I can’t play an instrument. I can’t draw well. I can’t sew or cook a giant meal off the cuff. I didn’t learn to practice things aspiring to mastery until recently. Academia started polishing a skill set for me, but improv was the first fully creative pursuit that I was able to practice long enough to see real results – to start on the pathway to mastery.

In our society innovation is prized above mastery. It is the charming part of a youthful country and a child-like culture. There are of course, disadvantages too. Improv is such a balm to a person like me: we can fool ourselves for a long time in to thinking that we’re being spontaneous and inventive in the moment. That what is happening in a show “has never happened before & will never happened again” and yet we hold on to no part of it. Our shows, our scenes, smash themselves the moment they’re over — preventing us from making an example or idol of an imperfect vessel.

One of the secrets of life is that originality is a myth. The most innovative artists have merely pulled off an engaging synthesis or revival. Don’t let that spook you gentle reader: mastery is exciting and forever a challenge, unique work is work done proficiently enough that the potter’s hands disappear: the shamans of creation are more patient than you give them credit for.