Friday, July 14, 2017

The Single Most Important Thing I Learned in School

Last night at The Actor’s Studio in Newburyport, I took a class in improvisation for the first time in fifty years. I am not on the doorstep of a new career. I am not even in the same zip code. A chain of circumstance led me to this class, and I’m glad it did.

One of the teachers happened to be a onetime, longtime L’Arche assistant. I met her while sharing time together at one of our homes at L’Arche Boston North. I told her that I was (am) writing a play (it’s a long story). She said she was co-leading an improv class.

I explained that improv was probably the most indelible portable skill I gained from three years at a particular fancy boarding school. That and writing, I should have said. I told her I might take the class, and last night I did.

If nothing else, improvisation is a way of being that helps me be a better L’Arche assistant, a better husband, a better person. An example may help.

Last night we did a number of exercises. In one, six of us entered a (silent) cocktail party, one at a time. Each found his or her place in the room, which was small, so there was a tendency for pairing off. I was third and, feeling as I often do at cocktail parties, I retreated to a corner and mimed pulling out my smart phone. I started staring and twiddling my fingers—the occupation of most Americans these days, it seems.

The fifth person to enter the “party” was a woman about my age. She sat beside me and we started eying each other. (Only play acting, of course.) Then came the order from the leader to “freeze.” The leader tapped two other people, a pair across the stage, and told them to continue with words. They did so for a while, then she tapped the next two, while the rest of us froze.

It was obvious that the lady beside me and I were going to be the last two tapped. What would we say? My monkey mind began rehearsing, the way you might in a bar when approaching an attractive stranger, the way you might while waiting for a job interview. Of course, I simultanously realized that this was precisely NOT what I was supposed to do. Not in improv. In improv, you go with what’s offered, meaning that I should wait in silence to be tapped, then look at my partner and say “yes” to whatever she was offering.

So, well, this is how it unfolded. After the tap, she looked at my phone, showing great interest. I was “embarrassed.” Somehow we reached a silent agreement with only a brief exchange that the images on my phone were, um, arousing. In fact—as we improvised through the story—my phone was displaying images of my wife doing yoga, and I’m pretty sure we both agreed that my wife was wearing little or no clothes in the video, and my new friend seemed impressed by the positions my wife was assuming, and—.

Well, and then I said, my wife had just died and but I was here because there’s nothing I hated more than to renege on social agreements and but I was disconsolate and—gosh—I wept and expressed a need for comfort.

Tap. Freeze!

Each of the three pairs was now asked to move their story ahead three hours. Listening to the other two pairs, my mind again tried to come up with something “funny” to say three hours later. Again, this was wrong entirely. So when we were tapped a second time, all I said, haltingly, was, “I better go.” What that meant and just what had happened in the preceding three hours was, more or less, worked out between us in the improvised exchange that followed.

This may not sound funny or interesting now, but then, suspended in the moment by a willed silencing of my own head, it felt like tightrope walking, both terrifying and liberating.

I realized—as I have realized before—that such improv work as we did last night and as I remember from fifty years ago is perfect training for being a L’Arche assistant. At L’Arche we share time, we share our lives with adults who have intellectual disabilities. Their verbal skills range from quite good to none. With the less verbal “core members” especially, none of my “funniest lines,” none of my most engaging conversation starters are any good.

Thus every moment with them is an improvisation, or should be. I need to throw out all the mental stuff—clichés, expectations, fears—that fill my head in most social situations and just BE with them. This is an incredibly freeing experience when I give myself wholly to it.

Just like good improv.

Another three-hour class will be offered at The Actor’s Studio on Saturday, July 22, from 2pm to 5pm. Check out the web site linked above for more info.

And as for the picture at the top of the post. That would be me at right in a new, basically two-person play produced by the Hampton Playhouse in Hampton, NH, during the summer of 1969. My co-star (well, she was the star, I was the apprentice) was Katherine Helmond, who later played the ditzy mom Jessica Tate on TV’s “Soap” (1977–1981).

Yes, that was definitely my high-water mark in theatre. Until last night anyway.

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