In improv, we have a common phrase, “I need you to make a choice right now.” Often this translates to, “I need you to be bold right now.” On the surface, this doesn’t seem like much. After all, this is a common occurrence for the average person, on the average day, engaged in the average thing.
But taking a closer look at this reveals much more operating beneath the surface.
Using the average person’s day as an example, how often do we encounter a situation that causes us to take a step back only to end up going for the easiest way out? How often do we justify not acting to maintain a semblance of comfort, composure, reputation, or appearance?
Herein begins our journey down the avenue of a bold choice.
For the average individual watching a live improv show, some video on YouTube, any of the limited films/documentaries showcasing improv, or reruns of Whose Line is it Anyway, they watch what is happening with awe and often an immense level of trepidation.
How do the performers do that? How can they think so fast? Did they remember something from a previous scene and use it in this new one? How do they keep their characters straight? Etc, etc., etc.
I get it. The concept of performing on stage, most likely before a live audience, and having no script to create content is incredibly terrifying. And while I’ve discussed some of the tools that make this a possibility, I would say that out of all techniques or principles, the ability to make a bold choice lands in the top three to make improv successful.
In the book Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out, renowned performer and teacher Mick Napier makes a simple comment about how to improvise in his chapter entitled How to Improvise. Here are the first few lines.
“For God’s sake, do something. Anything. Something. At the top of an improv scene, do something. Please, do it for yourself. Do yourself a favor and just do something.”
In case you missed the theme, here is a reminder: Do something.
One of my favorite aspects of improvisation performance is the complete lack of a script or the foreknowledge of what will ensue that night. This means that I am relying entirely on myself and my teammates. I’m exhibiting enormous amounts of trust in myself and my teammates. I’m willing to jump off the metaphorical cliff and into the unknown. Hopefully, you’re catching onto another theme here.
So, taking Mr. Napier’s sound advice, and combining that with what we discussed earlier about how we spend so much time talking ourselves out of things, or justifying why our potential thoughts or actions are stupid, ridiculous, unimportant, unhelpful, yadda-yadda-yadda, hopefully, you can see how profound this principle is.
Just do something. And then, once you’ve learned that, you learn to do something on purpose. And then, once you’ve learned that, you learn to do something with purpose. Notice how all of these are active positions.
Imagine with me, if you will, that you are currently on stage, or in a board meeting, or on a first date, or in a make-or-break relationship situation, or in danger, or at a crossroads—honestly this list could go on and on. Now ask yourself, “What do I do?” The thing is, if you’ve never been in the said situation before, it’s practically impossible to know what you’d do. I know I’m guilty of over-thinking and over-analyzing to the point of having hypothetical conversations with other people in my head or trying to imagine how a scenario will play out. Truth-be-told, no matter how close I may come to actually be right (not very often, unsurprisingly), I never am.
There is always the element of unknown, uncontrollable, and adept variation in everything. This is why if we haven’t practiced and exercised our ability to make choices, then all the thinking or pre-planning in the world ends up vain and unable to assist us at the moment.
Yes, this is a skill. And yes, it can be practiced. And though I won’t be delving into it in this blog, the follow-up conversation to making bold choices is how to do so humbly, confidently, objectionably, and able to face and accept the consequences of those choices. Another concept that improv handles adeptly. (Improv can do this because any bold decision you make you can see through to the absolute end with no real-life consequences!)
So what does a bold choice look like? Oh, I’m so glad you asked.
Really, it’s incredibly simple. You just choose to do something. Anything. And then you boldly declare said statement and leave it hanging out in the aether.
I know. This is absolutely terrifying.
Now, I want to explain something here. I’m not suggesting that you act prematurely, without intelligence, or not based on something sturdy and sure. Sometimes we have to do that, but I’m not saying that’s what a bold choice inherently is.
If you are preparing for an important board meeting, absolutely don’t go in cold, or assuming. Put the work in. Study the content. Be solid in your position.
If you’re on a first date, don’t worry about the impression you’re making. You already know how to be yourself, so just be yourself and listen to your date.
If you’re in danger, reacting solely on fear or adrenaline will often put you in more danger than the threat itself.
Do you see what I’m saying? There’s always going to be an element of chaos to life, but we can train ourselves to live within it. We can learn to activate intelligence, elegance, wisdom, and accuracy when faced with awkward, uncontrollable, and unknown.
But the only way to do that is to make choices along the way.
So, in improv, we do this by practicing—a lot. Yes, I know it sounds odd, but we do practice improv, and the quality of a player or a show can be highly dependent on this. But we don’t practice specifics or content. Instead, we practice formats.
All the games or exercises that we do exist on a foundation of formats, patterns, and practices. All we have to do is plug in a random word, suggestion, or any other active element, and the game/format engages and proceeds. The beauty of this is, we already know what we’re doing, but it changes every time.
Kind of cool, right?
Take this in stride with life. Your ability to recognize your thoughts and feelings and then put them out into the world is very similar. Your life is not scripted, and everything is subject to change on a moment’s whim. Is this not improv? And when life happens, you are inevitably faced with a choice: to do something or not do something. Is this not the same as what we’ve been discussing?
Take a moment to reflect on yourself and your behavior. How good are you at choice and consequence? Would you like to be better? Are you content where you are?
So now that we know what a bold choice is, how do we know which one to make at the moment? And how do we know what is accurate, “right,” helpful, or hurtful?
The answer to all of these requires listening and processing. First, you have to listen or observe what the situation is presenting. Then, based on that, you analyze your options and pick the one you prefer the most.
Pretty seamless, right?
Only, here is where we talk ourselves out of ourselves. This is the moment where so much of who we are goes unsaid, unseen, and unknown. Because we don’t believe what we have to offer is worth anything.
We have to get over this thought. Essential to any form of higher functioning is a sense of self, belief in said self, and love for said self. With this perspective in our bat-belt, we can tackle most things.
But then, after we’ve exhibited self-confidence, we say or do something that may backfire, create a standstill, disengage, etc. So what do we do? Here are some of the more common reactions I’ve seen: anger, jealousy, fear, anticipation, loss, misunderstanding, over-confidence, aggression, or a defensive stance. While more positive reactions are known to happen, the average person hasn’t trained to look for them. Most of us just don’t know what to do when things go awry.
Herein falls the final piece of a bold choice: The aftermath. It can’t be avoided. We’re entirely left at the will of circumstance. So what do we do?
This is why we practice, and we develop and grow more as a person to know what our positions, feelings, attitudes, desires, and hopes are. The more we practice choosing, the better we become at making choices. And the better we get at making choices, the more adept we get at seeing potential causes and effects of those decisions.
A simple domino effect. And yet, in some of life’s irony, we don’t find the ability to make choices so simple.
This makes improv such a unique place to participate in because we learn what it’s like to make choices in an environment that promotes the exploration of the cause and effect. And the only consequences—when approached from a workshop standpoint—are figurative.
So there you have it: A breakdown of bold choices, a little of their impact, but also how we can approach getting better at them.