Improvising Within A Script

Patricia_Ryan_Madson

Patricia Ryan Madson has been a source of pragmatic joy in my life.  Seriously playful and playfully serious.  No doubt those skills helped her in her many years teaching at Stanford University.  She was instrumental in the formation of BATS Improv in San Francisco.   Serving on the first Board of Directors, Patricia helped move the company from a good idea into a good idea with a support structure. I asked her if she would write something up for this blog and happily she did.  How do you combine improvisation with a script?  Curious?  Read on.  And please leave a comment.  Thank you.  ~William Hall

Improvising Within a Script

In 2005 I published a small, compact book titled Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show up. (Random House, Bell Tower Books) In it I lay out a blueprint for living based on principles culled from 40 years of teaching drama.  The thirteen maxims use the metaphor of improvising and come from the classroom and stage.  This view of living takes as given the following assumptions:

  1. Fear of the unknown is universal
  2. Everyone judges himself as “poor” at thinking on his feet
  3. Everyone fears looking foolish in public
  4. Anything well done must be carefully planned and executed
  5. Improvising is something best done by professionals

Although I taught performance subjects for over forty years I find myself with clammy palms when I think of speaking in public.  Even pros aren’t exempt from the chills and fever of performance anxiety.  I still have long sleepless nights before a public presentation.

In my book I look at these “givens” and challenge the reader to reexamine his beliefs and to try things differently by using the improviser’s way of approaching a problem to cut through these platitudes.

Last fall I accepted a gig to be the keynote speaker for a conference of realtors in Mexico.  They wanted me to dazzle the large auditorium extolling the virtues of improvising.  This kind of appearance is my nightmare.  I loathe giving prepared speeches.  I love improvising. It wasn’t the kind of event where I could just stand up and improvise some remarks and hope to satisfy my employer.  They wanted a performance.  How do I honestly “craft” a speech advising everyone not to prepare?   Tricky at best . . .  So, this is what I did.

First I called some trusted friends for support, including the amazing William Hall and Rebecca Stockley.  They each gave me great ideas about how to approach this event suggesting a way to frame the program.  William was terrific at being my shadow coach, smiling in the background, cheering me on.  Suitably buoyed by their help I set out to create the program.

I organized (and wrote out in longhand) a speech with a beginning, middle and socko ending.  I wrote it out first as an outline and then developed the speech as I would a role in a play.  For a month, every day I rehearsed the speech going over the structure and the content until it was virtually memorized.  And, then I bought an exciting silk blouse to wear and packed my bags for Mexico.  On the day of the event I got up early, had a good breakfast, did some warm-ups and showed up at the cavernous Alhambra Theater where 400 professionals filled the ornate auditorium.  I gave my thumb drive to the technician to set up the Power Point which accompanied my performance.  There was a moment when it appeared that they could not get this working.  But I had no fear.  I’ll just improvise!  They did manage to get the slide show working, and the curtain opened and I walked on stage.  And now the improvisation could begin.  I was glowing with the joy of sharing some ideas about the magic of improvising.  And I launched the prepared speech, but it felt like the first time.  I was alive.   I was talking to the people who were there.  There was a sense of magic.  I was improvising within the script.  It felt really good.

What I learned that week in Oaxaca is that improvisation and working with a script need not be mutually exclusive. Improvising within a script may be the best of both worlds. The script gave me structure and stability and then improvising gave me life and presence on stage.  When I am performing with the improviser turned on I feel exhilarated, able to do anything, meet any slip up or unexpected event.  The hours of rehearsal on the script become the underlying breath of the performance, but the improviser ran the show.

Patricia Ryan Madson

El Granada, CA 94018

November 9, 2009

improvwisdom@gmail.com