Be You. No, thanks.

I can’t help but feel it’s a bit of a trap. And I don’t like traps. Never have. I made one once when I was on a Wilderness Survival course. It was a weird contraption made from a stick with a hole in the end, some string and a loop of wire. It was supposed to catch a rabbit. The instructor said it was more likely to catch an elephant.

I believe that was his way of saying it was too big.

But, as he kept reminding us, he’d lived with Inuits and learned their ways. Apparently that gave him permission to be a jerk.

Not actual instructor… so potentially not actually a jerk.

I enjoy telling my outdoor pursuit stories because they seem to surprise people. Maybe I don’t seem very woodsy now. This morning I was looking through a box of keepsakes and found the twine I made barehanded from stinging nettles. And I thought wow, who was that person? I mean I wouldn’t have chosen then to do it that way; I would have worn gloves, like any sensible person, but see above instructor details.

I’ve tried on quite a range of pursuits, outdoor adventures being some of them. Some I have nowhere near had the skills for. I once constructed a pyramid bow with exceedingly few carpentry skills. I once did a military assault course and could barely put my arms down for a week. And I once went sea kayaking with a river kayak and just went around in circles.

I did improv.

I suppose I rather enjoy the feeling of being out of my depth and having to muddle through. Actually I’m not sure ‘enjoy’ is always the right word. Maybe I am drawn to it like a strange moth-like creature on a search to discover that elusive substance from which I am made. What is me?

I’ve been reading a book recently, called No Self No Problem. It’s about how neuropsychology is catching up with Buddhism in some of its teachings. The writer Chris Niebauer presents that our sense of self is an illusion created by the left side of our brains.

“Perhaps the reason we can’t find the self in the brain is it isn’t there. Yet even if we accept as true that there is no self, we cannot deny there is still a very strong idea of self. While neuropsychology has failed to find the seat of the self, it has determined the part of the brain that creates this idea of self…. Mistaking the voice in our head for a thing and labelling it “me” brings us into conflict with the neuropsychological evidence that shows there is no such thing… Taoist philosopher and author Wei Wu Wei…writes, “Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, is for yourself – and there isn’t one.””

Chris Niebauer

Niebauer demonstrates how the left side of the brain is an interpreter, framing and reframing our experiences, writing and rewriting stories about ourselves. If certain behaviours don’t fit with its stories, it may choose to use some ‘interpreter’ license. It may just choose to ignore the offending article.

While the left brain is interpreting, the right brain is just doing its thing. Its creative, emotional, intuitive thing.

There have been lots of studies surrounding this work but a particular one I found interesting in relation to improv is whereby test subjects were given two stacks of cards to choose from. On each card was a financial win or loss. They were told to make as much money as possible during the time allotted. One stack of cards contained big wins but also big losses. The other stack had small wins and almost no losses. It generally took fifty to eighty draws of the cards before subjects started to consciously see that drawing from the second stack was more beneficial.

However, test subjects started to sweat when the first stack was chosen, after only ten draws. Some people never worked out the system but even they still got sweaty when the hands of the dealer moved closer to the first stack. This study suggests the right brain has an instinct before the left brain can catch up. In improv terms this particularly makes me think of editing, when your feet know you should edit a scene far before you get to thinking – ‘I should really edit this scene’.

All this no self concept might send some running for pitchforks and setting light to livestock. For me, I’m kind of relieved. I never really felt like I had much of a sense of self so the pressure is off! Maybe I’m not meant to find one thing I’m supposed to be doing with my time either. Maybe I’m not meant to be a [insert noun].

“We’re being told to become a noun and the vitality of life is in staying a verb.”

Mark Nepo

Phew! Mark Nepo gets it. He was on Magic Lessons – Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast about creativity – talking about how when children express themselves they are told they should be something. If they are singing on the playground, an adult tells them they should be a singer. If they are planting seeds, an adult tells them they should be a gardener. If they are running a diner under a tree and making mud pies, an adult tells them they should become a terrible chef.

It’s kind of insulting because they are already doing that thing and someone is telling them their efforts are not enough and they have to do more to be ‘something’ and make the grade.

When you are a noun you also can get caught up in trying to defend yourself. I experienced this a great deal when I was a teacher. In Britain, teachers are always to blame for everything (in the press, from the government, from parents, from managers – no one likes a teacher, except sometimes students… but generally not even teachers like teachers) and you get tested every year to make sure you are still a teacher ‘adequately’. There was a grade called ‘satisfactory’ which if you received, you faced a long process of trying to improve from ‘satisfactory’ before you got fired… for being ‘satisfactory’.

Being a thing, being a noun, can make us feel we have to defend ourselves. We have to prove we deserve the title. We have to be doing that thing regularly. We have to be competent at it. We have to be recognised.

I’ve never felt comfortable choosing a noun. There’s so many things to do in this world. I mean I adore improv. I’ve been doing it for years and it greatly enriches my life. But would I get a ‘yes, and…’ tattooed on my body? I would not. ‘Follow the fun’? Hmmm, no.

I always felt a great envy for people who got tattooed. How to be so sure of the consistency of one’s tastes and character? How to be so sure of one’s self?

When all that engraving is happening, I’m next door trying on hats. I have big hair, a big head, and a big problem finding hats to fit. If I didn’t enjoy trying them on, we’d have a big problem.

And it’s the trying on hat effect that I love about improv. I love to try on another skin. Who’s this person? What do they want? What’s their deal?

The extraordinary Neil Curran considers longform improv to be pretty much the stage practice of Quantum Leap – a tv programme starring Scott Bakula, where his character Sam Beckett gets stuck in a science experiment that for some mystifying reason has him jumping into other people’s bodies to right their ‘mistakes’.

Why would anyone invent this? Good question. I hear you.

At the beginning of each jump, Sam Beckett knows very little, if anything, about the person he has temporarily become. So it is, in longform improv. We are there in the scene and we have to work out who we are in that moment and why we are there. And unlike Sam, we don’t have a womanising hologram side-kick and unreliable computer to tell us anything about what is going on. Phew!

We just have our equally clueless scene partner. Hooray!

Check out this video to hear Neil Curran talk about the Quantum Leap of Improv.

I love Neil Curran’s analogy, just as I once loved watching Quantum Leap. In an improv scene you may not always find yourself as a character you like but it’s up to you to find a connection with that character anyway. And in doing so, reveal to the audience, the humanity. Perhaps our mission in longform improv is to find this nugget of human in any scene and expose it to the audience before we can leap into the next unsuspecting character and scenario.

Playing other people, creatures, inanimate objects, has helped me become more settled in my own skin. This week I played a pure ball of light. It didn’t have anyone to talk to and was floating about in a vacuum. Without anyone else to help it work out its edges, it could have been anything. Maybe in working out who I am not, I find myself closer to working out who I am.

Or maybe it just matters less.

What I am doing becomes my focus. For me, I feel my left brain is distracted during improv from its usual self story rehashing. It is channelling all its narrative powers into working out what the heck story is building in the scene or show. And my creative intuitive right brain is free to be firing in the moment, with less meddling from left brain chatter.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Albert Einstein

Much of the Western World seems to want to tell us who we are. At the very least it wants us to pick something and ‘be’ it. When we do, it makes us easier to box and so to sell to, manipulate and exploit. In this way I see improv as a little rebellion against the big mass of ‘be who you are’ media and influences. I feel most myself when I’m practicing improv. Perversely so, in the process of playing being different people I feel most at home.

And what of Sam Beckett, leaping about being other people? Hoping the next leap would be his leap home. Did he ever get there?

He did not.

The series got cancelled so they added a line about him never getting home. The end.

He’s out there somewhere still, as if jumping from scene to scene to scene…

In Quantum Leap, Beckett, played by Bakula, was putting right what once went wrong. There’s something rather sticky about obsessively correcting other people’s mistakes, isn’t there? No wonder that computer was always breaking down. What a task it had to work out what would be considered a mistake and what wouldn’t be. It made younger me pretty scared about doing anything ‘wrong’. What if suddenly Scott Bakula would appear in my skin like, “Stand aside, missy, I have your life to correct.” Rude.

And when Scott Bakula was doing his thing, where would I be? Maybe I’d be Scott Bakula. As if Scott Bakula is a holding space for all the people who are shoved out of their lives to wait for him to be finished in their skins.

He does probably have a nice swimming pool. Still, leave it alone, Scott Bakula! I’ve got my own leaping to do.

Leap Responsibly. And may you put right the scenes that could go wrong.

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