I know why I improvise, there are actually lots of specific reasons, but there is one fundamental thing that links it all together and keeps me coming back for more. It’s what makes me go to workshops and run them, and go to shows, and read about improv, and write about improv also.
To begin with the fundamental thing is that improvisation is very rewarding, and I mean that in the literal psychological sense. When we do things that help us survive, like find something tasty, solve a puzzle, meet a friendly person, etc, our brain releases dopamine which feels good and encourages us to keep doing those things.
Improv has a lot of different rewards for me. Working with people is social, telling stories is mentally and emotionally engaging, and getting up and performing in front of an audience is challenging and exhilarating. So it provides rewards in a lot of different areas. You might like to know that dopamine helps with creativity in certain parts of the brain, so doing something creative that you find rewarding makes you even more creative when doing it. So the more you enjoy something the more motivation and the more freedom of thought you gain.
To give an example of a specific reward, I was reminded of this whilst working in a very unrewarding and unengaging job. The reason boring jobs take so much out of you is that you aren’t releasing dopamine that much, so your motivation falters and you spend a lot of time treading water rather than running on ahead. That’s why I think it’s important to recognise what feeds your inner process and embrace it.
“Find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life.” – Confucius
I was interviewing a customer who had her daughter with her, and the daughter was drawing to stay occupied. The girl had drawn the clouds in the sky and the ground with a car and a house on it. Then she piped up and said:
“What should I draw next?”
I saw the huge blank expanse in the middle and said the first thing that came into my mind.
“How about the horizon?”
She looked at me quizzically and I said
“It’s where the ground meets the sky,” I said.
“So draw a straight line across the middle,” her mum said.
So the girl drew the line, stared at it for a second and then revelation struck.
“Oh, that’s!” and she pushed her hand out in front of her. She suddenly grasped perspective, she just didn’t have the words yet. Then she drew a road winding out from the house all the way up to the horizon. She had learned something. A fundamental building block in her understanding of 2D representations of 3D objects had just arrived, or in other words she suddenly got how to draw things Going Away.
I found that rewarding, because I love learning and understanding, I get a real buzz when I solve a puzzle or I learn something new from an improv game. So seeing that in another person is great, especially kids who are still open to that process. They go through revelations and paradigm shifts almost every day. And it was just an offhand comment I made, I wasn’t trying to be clever or instruct her, she had just grabbed what was in front of her then wrestled with it until she understood it. It was fun to accidently contribute to her learning.
So learning is very powerful for me. Learning for myself and also being around others and seeing that revelation when they get something new, I love that. I’m sure you do to, it’s fun to be around open minds. That’s why I treasure great teachers and appreciate how they let people discover new things. And it is also why I know that I will never stop learning about improvisation and myself, and that if I am working on a project it needs to be something I can learn from. I could never just churn out show after show if I didn’t feel like I was learning, I would have to hit up a workshop and get some new ideas.
The reason I share this, is because as I say above, knowing how you work is important to get the most out of your time. So as an improviser you might like to ask yourself the question.
“Why do I improvise?”
If you look at the things you do all through your life and pick out the ones that reward you the most, you might find a common thread. It could be being part of a team, it could be the atmosphere of shows, it could be singing improvised songs, it could be the joy of fucking around and getting away with it. Whatever it is, if you can identify it then you can make sure your projects fall into alignment with those rewards and what you do will become even more incredible to you. Or in other words, do what you love doing.
So that is why I improvise. In order to do what I love doing.
Why do you improvise?