“Good improvisers seem telepathic;
everything looks prearranged.
This is because they accept all offers made—
which is something no ‘normal’ person would do.”
— Keith Johnstone
The single most useful class I ever took had nothing to do with the martial arts, firefighting, broadcast journalism, or any other thing that I’ve done professionally in my life. At the same time, it has had everything to do with those areas and more. In the decades since, I’ve been a better martial artist, firefighter, journalist, teacher and person because of those lessons learned.
My junior year of college I took an Improvisational Theater class with Professor Ed Menta. Among our assigned reading was what is widely considered the Bible of the topic, “Impro” by Keith Johnstone. This book, which I highly recommend to anyone, contains a wealth of thoughts on acting, on what makes us laugh, and on life in general. Yet, the entire work can be summed up in two words: “Say Yes.”
For all the value that good planning provides, life at its essence is one long improvisational sketch. From one day to the next — let alone from year to year — we have no idea what it is going to throw at us. Johnstone realized that when someone fell on their face when improvising on stage, it was always because they were trying to fit the suggestions they were given around some completely different direction in which they planned to go. In essence, they were saying “no” to the possibilities presented them. On the other hand, the performers who consistently brought the house down weren’t necessarily comic geniuses or actors of Olivier-like proportions but rather people willing to say “Yes!” to every possibility–the good and the bad — and make it their own.
Johnstone’s description of a good improviser — someone who seems practically telepathic — could easily be that of a true master of the martial arts. Watch one of the great masters in action, and it seems as if they knew what strike their attacker was going to throw before their attacker did. This seemingly super-sensory ability is not telepathy, but rather an absolute openness to all possibilities. The master does not try to fit their aggressor’s attack to their planned defense, but rather give themselves completely to the circumstances presented them. It is no coincidence that the great masters have also been students of zen or other forms of meditation. The hard-earned skill of silencing the mind of self-generated noise, so that we can be attuned to the whispers of the world around us, is essential to true martial arts mastery.
And so it is that our openness to our surroundings at any given moment, and our willingness to accept the possibilities suddenly presented us, are essential to us mastering this Great Improv Sketch that we are living moment by moment. This week, my hope for all of us* is that we greet everything life throws at us with a great big “Yes”.