In January 2010, I started taking improvisation classes. This was something that I had thought about doing for sometime, having falling in love, many years prior, with the show ‘Whose line is it anyway?’
Deep down, I had also felt that I’d enjoy throwing myself into ambiguous situations, not knowing where things might end up. Okay, intellectually I knew I’d enjoy it, and yet emotionally I was thinking, ‘I must be crazy embarking on this!’
Taking up improvisation came at a time when I was in the process of letting go of my corporate identity. I had decided to embark on life as a freelancer and knew that part of the process of letting go, meant navigating uncertainty – improvising! As part of that journey, I also wanted to relearn how to relax and not take myself and life too seriously.
Diving into improvisation – and life as a freelancer – was an experience that at that time, I perceived as counter-intuitive. You see, somewhere along my life journey, I had become someone who always wanted to know how the story ends. Much as I hated to admit it, I longed for certainty when it came to most things – from the trivia to the serious. I was that person who reading a novel would go to the final few chapters to see how the story ends. Or watching a drama on TV would go onto Wikipedia to find out where the plot was going (okay, I still find myself doing that sometimes!). So the idea of improvising a situation, without knowing the outcome was extremely daunting and certainly out of my comfort zone.
It was not always this way. Playing was something that at one point in my life, I thought I’d never be able to stop. I remember in my adolescence cutting class on a number of occasions to go fishing with friends. I remember being obsessed with my Lego bricks and action man figure, long past the time my peers were done playing with such toys. They had moved onto girls, fascination with cars and sports, and I simply wanted to carry on and play like Peter Pan.
When I was not playing, I was stuck in my day-dreaming world, where all that needed to be done was play. My report card from school, during that phase of my life always had scrawled across it ‘….could do better’; much to the disappointment of my parents.
Somewhere along the line, I mistakenly came to learn that to be a ‘grown-up’ was to stop playing. As I reflect on that statement, I am tempted to say ‘or at least redefine what playing meant’. In my case, a redefinition never came into it – there was no in-between, it was a case of all or nothing. From what I remember about playing as a child, there was a complete surrendering to the moment that occurred, where success or failure did not matter. It was simply about being in synch with the activity in hand.
Over a period of time, playing had become an intellectual activity. When it was not that, it was about winning or losing. When it was not that, it was a release or distraction from whatever pain I might have been caught up in. Play had become a means to an end. Rather than a means and an end.
I was in two improvisation shows last year. The format of the show was based on a series of elimination rounds, with the last person standing declared ‘the winner’. It’s all fun, in fact the emphasis is on ‘having fun and enjoying the experience’. For my first show, the ‘grown-up’ me (the recovering perfectionist) came out to play and I found myself not surrendering to the moment, but instead measuring, comparing, and competing. In the second show, many months later, another version of the ‘grown-up me (the doubtful one) came out to play. This time I found myself withdrawing, judging and holding back. Yes, it was fun, but there was no surrender on my part – I was clutching to the handrails, whilst longing to simply fly.
By the time of my third show, earlier this year, I had started to think about ‘passion’ and how to bring that to play. I had remembered that play, like improvisation means complete abandonment to the moment – complete surrender, regardless of the outcome. I had known this intellectually from my classes, but transferring the knowledge to practice had proved challenging. My old tapes around play had not been changed and where running the show. This time, the me that had forgotten how to play came out and we had a ball. I look back on that night with such delight, each moment was full of uncertainty, and in my mind all I was being invited to do, was to surf the waves and enjoy the experience.
Unlearning what it means to play has certainly helped me embrace bringing passion to my work. It continues to be an ongoing process. Where I am right now is in exploring how to bring ‘passion’, ‘play’ and ‘work’ into my everyday experience. For this, I have very good teachers to help ensure this happens – life as a freelancer, improvisation and the courage and commitment to keep exploring.