Live Like an Improviser

Last month, I was honored to embark on a 2-week tour across the Midwest with 6 other improvisers: Kelly, G-Su, Dan, Mark, Cassie and Allen.

Our troupe, Art Vandelay, was unique in that we hailed from three different cities and had never performed together prior to the tour. This could have gone horribly wrong, but don’t worry, it didn’t.

It was magical! We all grew as improvisers and as people. We put on great shows (each one better than the last, mostly). We didn’t argue. We intentionally got to know one another. We took care of one another. We traveled efficiently. We became close friends.

If you plan to travel with improvisers from your community—on a tour, attending a summer intensives or just taking a vacation together– rest assured. You can (and will) have an experience almost identical to ours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Rent a minivan. Splitting your group between multiple cars creates factions. We recommend filling your vehicle with the maximum number of passengers. Physical closeness might not be essential for emotional closeness, but it helps. Get a rotation going so everyone gets a chance to sit in the more comfy seats. Before you know it, everyone will have been next to (on) everyone else.

 “Van. Rollin’ tight.” –Allen

 

  • Stop and have an adventure. Throw the Frisbee, pee, eat a vanwich. You will swim in a natural body of water together. You will hike through caves. You will sit in an empty cathedral together in sacred silence. You will erupt in childlike wonder when you detour (veering maybe hundreds or thousands of miles away from your intended route) to visit The City Museum inSt. Louis,Missouri. You’ll look at one another and shout things like, “I would have driven all the way up here just to do this!”

“Doing activities was a great way to pull us out of the van bubble, and get some outside influences. While we were in these fresh environments we were negotiating the day together and learning about each other, but in a different way than conversing in the van.” –Cassie

 

  • Improvise. Put on shows with local troupes. Watch other people and learn. Go to jams at local conservatories. If you find yourself in a town with no theater or troupes or jams, improvise. Put on shows. Improvise in front of gas stations, at Applebees, at the rental car place. Once you get into this habit, you will even improvise when you’re at the hospital for an emergency.

 

  • Value improvisers more than improv. You might be on the road to promote your troupe and build up a national fan-base. You might be on the road to make your mom mad, your friends jealous or your heart proud. You might be on the road to sharpen your improv skills. You might be on the road to make money, have new experiences or escape the reality of your day-to-day. Whichever of these categories you fall into, none of these ends will even come close to distracting you from what this trip is really about: people. You will never even think about using any of your van-mates as a means to these ends because they are a great end in and of themselves. This is part of why you are so great at collaborative performance art. You will return home with the pride of knowing you got in a van with 6 people who are all extremely different from one another and you really made an effort to know each of them. You will feel great about the fact that you can love people with different values and backgrounds truly and deeply. You’ll return home refreshed because for a couple of weeks, you were with people who really valued you. Your contributions to this group will really have mattered.

“We have 7 bladders, and 7 stomachs, and 7 backs that need to lie-down. No one was too regimented with pre-conceived ideas about the travel situation. I think when you travel with people, and they volunteer to take the floor tonight in bed rotation, you feel that support. You know they have your back, long before you do a scene together onstage.” –Cassie

“We definitely always had shows in mind, but we never intensely focused on improv- no hours upon hours discussing form & theory or anything. We focused on each other and the pursuit of fun, which took any pressure or expectations for the shows away and allowed us just to be in the moment with each other.” –Kelly

  • Make lots of van puns or something. You need to get some inside jokes and repeat them relentlessly. Understand that they won’t get old. Nobody on in that van will grow tired of them. If they do, they’ll appreciate them later. Someone will impersonate the sour surly rental car lady or the crazy cave tour guide. It will kill. You will laugh.

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You will laugh longer and harder than you have in months (maybe years) and you will not have felt this much a part of a group since summer camp in middle school. You’ll laugh so much that when you get home you’ll feel more rested and restored than you have in months (maybe years).

“Art Vandelay” –Cassie “Van Diesel”—G-Su “Van Diesel”—Kelly “Vanpires”—Mark “Scarlett JoVANsen”—Allen “The Van Before Time”—Matt

  • Listen to each other with bold opennessOnce you’re all in the van, you’ll get in the mindset that it’s group time.  You’ll save that new vanpire book, podcast or music album for later. Phones will die. The fact is, once you resign yourself to knowing and enjoying your van-mates, the group convansation will be too interesting to interrupt with personal entertainment. There are no reasons for you to keep any secrets from these people. You’re in a minivan together! You have a million shared details to subtly bring up on stage (with a wink and a snicker). You know these people have your back because they listened so intently and they hold your secrets in confidence.

“we truly spent a lot of time together. Nobody zoned out on their phone or read or played video games for a ton of time.” –Mark

“We probably all shared things with each other that we would dare not share in our normal day to day lives. “ –Dan

“Never did I feel as though something I said was not heard. There was never a feeling that someone was just waiting for their turn to talk in a conversation. Several times little things I had said throughout the day got thrown into scenes. For me, those were some of the strongest  bonding moments knowing that people cared enough to listen to the things I said and remember them.” –Kelly

 

  • Give each other invisible gifts. Have a pre-show ritual where people are honest about fears and things they want to work on as improvisers. As people share, someone will inevitably remember that in the pocket of their jeans is an invisible amulet locket. Inside the locket are 7 invisible magic beans. Once ingested, everyone in the troupe will turn into infinitely courageous incredible hulks (in an assortment of colors.) Oh look, someone else brought an invisible gift for the rest of the group. It’s a symbolic, tactful reminder of things we need to work on as a group. It’s a cure for the specific fear asserted by a specific troupe member. Look, you love each other! Look, you are ready to walk on stage with confidence in yourself and your travel-mates!

 “For me it all goes back to the pre-show.  It was a fun way to share hesitations and give notes without ever having to put us in the weird place of coaching from the inside.” –Dan

 

  • Freestyle rap or something. Since you’re out on the road with improvisers, just go ahead and constantly live by the codes improvisers follow. Voice your wackiest ideas. Everyone on the van will say yes. It only takes 3 people to make something stylish. You have 7. Do wacky things and own them. Create constantly! By the middle of your trip, you will be so relaxed around each other, so free, so playful that you will accidently make a freestyle rap video in one take. Take every opportunity to be silly and creative together. This WILL have a positive impact on the way you play together onstage.

 “The freestyle rap showed us that everyone was UBH [Ultimate Back Having] and I think it created a very good driving force for us.” –G-Su

“I think that willingness to do anything was a big part of the trip…anything we did that felt wrong or embarrassing at the time, but the pressure to do something foolish and the bravery that comes from our numbers made us fearless. The weird/scary/difficult things you experience and get through really bring you closer to the people you do them with.” –Mark

“You know, doin’ stuff. UBH is about doin’ it…not talking about doin’ it or thinkin’ about doin’ it, but actually doin’ it.” –Allen

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– Matt Graham