Published by ShawnKinley on

photo of man doing push ups using yellow kettlebell


Student Post




Q: What did you figure out this week?

A: I know everything about improvising now.


Q: What happened to Paul from the first week? You said if you think I already know this then you’re in trouble. What do you mean?

A: Yeah, and I stand by that. If I’m in a scene or a workshop and I think, I already know this, then I am failing in a way that will damage the work. What I mean is, there is only one thing to know about improvisation: be present. Everything else just stems from that idea. Every mantra you hear in improvisation (be obvious, be truthful, be boring, be interested, accept offers) is a variation of the same theme. Shawn says we can train our spirit or technique. Training our spirits is developing emotional presence while training technical skills is developing intellectual presence.

      I think it’s what Keith Johnstone meant when he described improvisation as a giant wheel. All the skills, feelings, and patterns we develop are just meant to take us to the hub of the wheel: being present. It’s what Rabindranath Tagore meant when he wrote, “That I exist is a perpetual surprise which is life.” All of the training and practice we do as improvisers is to 1) be aware of the ways in which we deny ourselves presence and 2) re-learn how to be present.

      So, I think I have a much cleaner understanding of improvisation. That said, ‘be present’ is a lesson of infinite depth, and I barely experience or understand it. Every performance, workshop, and teaching moment is unique and offers different obstacles and opportunities.


Q: What do you mean, you barely experience it?

Yevgeny Vakhtangov

A: A Russian acting teacher, of Vakhtangov’s lineage, tells the story of a performance he saw. An actor is playing a cuckoo. The bird is a deft thief: it steals other birds’ eggs and replaces them with its own. In this performance, the actor has to embody the bird. At the same time, he must juggle. The juggling is a metaphor for stealing eggs, and the actor emotes the story with his body while juggling. Unfortunately, according to the Russian acting teacher, the actor could do neither, and rather than appearing to be a cuckoo bird he merely appeared to be an idiot.

      I think I am on the verge of almost being able to be present emotionally OR intellectually (but not BOTH) most of the time. Maybe for a fraction of a second I am present in both ways during a performance. Most of the time, I appear merely an idiot. I do not mean this in a self-punishing way. Fortunately, in improvisation, being a good-natured fool can be quite endearing. Even if I were to be present in both ways, I expect I would still revel in being a good-natured fool. But I am walking towards greater presence.


Q: Where does that leave you? What are you working on right now?

A: Well, right now the way I am learning to be present is building more awareness of my partner’s reality. The more I can intimate what they are thinking and feeling, the more fun I am going to have.


Categories: Paul


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