Thursday, September 23, 2010

Serendipity and Chaos: Or, How to Cure Hamster Cancer

I’m jumping off a bit of a cliff with this post – it’s the first one not centered around a specific performance – and I hope you’ll jump with me. One of my intentions for the blog this year is to allow for a little more blogginess. You know, shorter posts, less forethought, more spontaneity. My hope is that this looseness will provide some new inspiration and eventually lead me somewhere valuable that I can’t as yet predict. The “good student” in me – the girl scout who believes in responsibility and duty – is nervous that this change in affairs is simply slackerdom in sheep’s clothing. Perhaps. But you know what? Lately I’ve been telling that girl scout to stuff it. Her devotion to care and craft, while one of my greatest assets, has no doubt precluded me at times from the serendipity found in chaos. So I’m gonna have my blogginess. And if you’re a fan of my longer, more crafted writings, have no fear. Girl Scout is strong. She usually ends up winning in the end.

Speaking of “serendipity found in chaos”, let’s talk about improvisational theater – or improv – where "serendipity found in chaos" is the name of the game. I’ve been studying improv quite a bit since landing in New York and while I haven’t heard this exact phrase used to describe improv, I think it’s rather evident how it belongs. Chaos is inherent in improv. All the scenes are made up on the spot and no single performer knows what will happen next. It is, therefore, unplanned and unpredictable. Serendipity – or the phenomenon of making fortunate discoveries by accident – comes into play when the improvisers begin making connections amongst all the random material their chaos has generated. The serendipity part is what makes improv so delightful to watch. I hope you’ve all had the experience of bursting into unexpected laughter when the guy on stage suggests they cure the hamster’s cancer with that magic banana plunger from way back in the first scene. Or, you know, something similar. But the serendipity can’t happen without generating the chaos first. That’s what’s so fascinating about improv. It depends on chaos, on barreling into the unknown, and agreeing to embrace wholeheartedly whatever comes your way, no questions asked.

Does this make sense to people who haven’t studied improv? I hope so. If not, I suppose the very basic thing to know is the concept of “Yes, and,” which is how improvisers create agreement and generate new information in a scene. So if my scene partner says, “We’re plumbers,” then I must agree to that reality and also add new information: “YES we’re plumbers AND we have magical powers.” Then my scene partner does the same thing: “YES, we’re magical plumbers AND we’re stranded on a tropical island.” And before you know it, we’re going into business and magic banana plungers are born – which, as it turns out by the end of the show, are just the perfect thing to cure some poor hamster’s cancer.

Chaos is terrifying. Disorder and unpredictability, in life, is terrifying. That’s why I make lists and keep a calendar, and have perfected the art of worrying – all efforts to keep the disordered and unpredictable at bay. But if I get too good at it, all I will get out of life is exactly what is on my list plus a forehead full of wrinkles. So studying and performing improv is a bit of a balm for me. It’s a place where I can practice embracing chaos. And where I can practice creating order out of chaos not by imposing control, but by opening myself to the contributions of others and then adding my own two cents. The reward at the end of it – if I embrace and open hard enough – is serendipity and unexpected laughter, which is very tempting indeed, even for Girl Scouts. So I keep at it, even though it’s not so easy. Not so easy, but at least it’s simple. As simple as saying, "Yes, and."

P.S. - If you're in New York City or Chicago, you owe it to yourself to seek out the improv duo TJ and Dave - whose particular style of long-form improv will have less to do with magic banana plungers than with the hilarious authenticity of being human.  Other improv teams I've recently enjoyed, and where magic banana plungers have a greater likelihood of appearing, include: The Stepfathers at UCB, Starkey and Grace and Jenn + Steve at The PIT, and of course Student Driver.


  1. It's interesting where each person sources their fear from, and how they differ (often drastically) from person to person. Adds spice.

    I'm definitely with Madeleine L'Engle (A Wrinkle in Time) in that it's order that drives terror into me. I thrive on chaos (although I usually call it opportunity instead).

    I have a feeling improv has a lot to teach everyone.

  2. Yes! I love this! Isn't it fascinating how diverse the human experience can be.

  3. "all I will get out of life is exactly what is on my list plus a forehead full of wrinkles"- what wise words! As a fellow controller/worrier, I've always been terrified of improv. I'm so impressed that you do it!

  4. Thanks, Tovah! You should totally take a first level class at The PIT. I think what fascinates me about improv even more than the chaos is all the structure and tools improv has developed to help the performers order and harness the chaos to their advantage. For controller/worriers it's a really cool mix!