Over the last weekend, I attended the British Improv Project’s spring weekend in a dedicated conference centre a little north of Stafford. We arrived on Friday afternoon and immediately recognised that we were amongst a group of people improvising their reunions with old friends and making new connections.
Improv has been something that I enjoyed through the pandemic, so my only experience has been in the confines of a Zoom screen. Some of the games I had learned under the guidance of the wonderful Cathy Towers. Along with her, some of our happy troupe that had gathered around her sessions also came to experience it in person.
I’m a novice at improv, yet determined to become first a practitioner, and then build my expertise. I’m gathering data and experimenting with skills, that’s what novices do. The event scheduled many classes, we were truly spoilt for choice. Some level 1, aimed at beginners, some level 2 or 3. I chose the back to basics level 1 session for the first session. The evening moved into entertainment with an improv presentation by the more experienced at the event. We laughed our socks off.
On the second day, I decided to attend a session on the “Chicago Way” run by Jonathan Pitts. Jonathan soon showed his mastery of his subject. He opened the session with real clarity about what he expected us to do. He advised us not to seek his approval (“you already have it”) nor that of our peers. He knew, as we came to see, that only by letting go and being in the moment could we truly improvise. He gave us permission to call a time out, for sometimes improv may head in a direction that some may find uncomfortable. Then he started teaching, or more to the point, observing what others were doing and inviting them to consider elements that would otherwise have passed them by.
For example, in an improv of a flea market, one performer expressed, in a frustrated voice “You have been ages” – I replied, “Well, it’s only been two hours” – We were invited to pause (in a masterful way that meant we did not lose our connection with the moment) and consider what this short exchange told us all, the performers and the audience, about the perception of time each protagonist had. Why? Because that consideration can drive where the improv can head next. Jonathan’s ability to break down what we needed to know in the moment, without overloading anyone with information, and breaking down how to apply the learning, and hone the skills. This is the essence of mastery and in a few short hours I know Jonathan lifted my game, permanently. It’s what masters do.
Being in the moment, truly focussed on what is happening and knowing that the future will come, come what may, means we can really connect with others, and with the environment. Jonathan, like every master of their art, changes the lives of the people they meet, for the better. They leave people achieving the seemingly impossible. Many people pay lip service to their expertise, yet they stop learning, because they aren’t hungry for more. A few want to improve, but don’t make it a habit to improve. Jonathan wasn’t just there to share his knowledge, but to learn from us all, from other teachers, from the conversations in the bar and over meals, and to be open in the moment to the idea, the word, the skill, that makes him better. Every day.
Being intentional about your own mastery is so important, and that’s why I focus on working with people who are hungry to be the only person who does what they do, their way.