Marshmallows, M.C. Escher, and Improv


Improvisational theater is an infinitely shrinking Russian nesting doll: you think you understand it, more or less, until you notice that there’s another, more detailed level of understanding underneath that first level, and then another, and another. When I first noticed this reality I fought against it; surely there would come a point at which I’d read enough books, attended enough workshops, performed in enough shows, and watched enough troupes that I knew pretty much everything there was to know. Back then I saw improv as a canon, a body of work that could be consumed and known—the way someone, if so inclined, could come to know all there was to know about Slavic literature or Native American headdresses.

You’re laughing at me. “Foolish child! There is no end to this thing! It is a lifetime exploration!”

A few months after I started studying improv two years ago I was cast in three shows within a week. I was, for a couple of embarrassing months, the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man, waddling through the Austin improv community with a goofy grin and a secret: I am the best, or at least the funniest, improviser in this town. And after only a few months.

Stop laughing at me!

No single thing punctured my precious little ego cocoon. It was a combination of time, seeing plenty more improvisers do excellent work, not getting cast in a couple of things I really wanted and, most importantly, fucking up plenty of scenes. I drifted back down to earth. I was not, in fact, the funniest or best improviser in Austin. I wasn’t the third best improviser in my own zip code.

I think the reason improv cannot be known is because knowing it would mean knowing ourselves fully—and that is something we can all agree is impossible. We can have a pretty good sense of ourselves. We can hike to the top of a mystical mountain in Nepal and spend 50 years sitting in silent meditation with a guru, only to be surprised when, on our way back down the mountain, we notice the sad eyes of the billy goat … or whatever. You get my point?

Improv is born of us, constantly. Even when we make the mistake of thinking too much during a scene and attempting to cram in a “funny” line we’re doing it from a place, ultimately, of subconscious thought. Ideas burrow into our synapses and wait there like snipers, maybe for years, only to come bursting out in a scene about a surly barista … or whatever. You get my point!

And frankly, thank the Flying Ziti Monster that improv cannot be completed like a video game. How fun would that be? Zero fun, that’s how much. Zero fucking fun, because then why would we bother doing it much afterward. I keep thinking of Stephen Kearin in that workshop, pretending to have one over-muscled arm, dragging it around the stage like dead weight. His point was: we have skills and talents we come to improv with, and those talents sustain us for awhile, maybe even forever, but if we rely on them we do so at the detriment of our other, less exercised skills. Our other limps atrophy from underuse.

So I’m in no hurry. I have a lifetime to strengthen my skinny bits, and even better, to discover muscles I’m not even currently aware exist. The infinite levels of improv wisdom are the point of this thing. Exploring those smaller and smaller nesting dolls is a fantastic excuse to explore ourselves, in stark relief—to get to know ourselves better while simultaneously getting out of own way.

If you’ll allow me a final tortured metaphor: I discovered M.C. Escher in my early teens and I was smitten. A human hand drawing a human hand that was, simultaneously, drawing the first hand? Stairways that didn’t leave anywhere but their own beginning? I didn’t understand how anyone couldn’t obsess over this guy. Escher’s more mind-bending illustrations are perhaps the best visualization of improv: the yearning to look inward, to figure things out, to make rational sense of the jumbled puzzle that is the human condition, only to eventually realize it’s an impossible task whose impossibility is a deep source of delight. The journey, friends. The journey.



  1. Rachel Austin on July 15, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    I really enjoyed this thought, “I think the reason improv cannot be known is because knowing it would mean knowing ourselves fully—and that is something we can all agree is impossible.”

    It sparked the idea that if you knew everything about yourself, you would know your whole story (like reading an entire book of fiction). Once you’ve finished the book, you put it on the shelf and consider it done. You can reflect on the story but ultimately the ups and downs of the plot are certain and complete so anything new you learn about the completed story, feels somewhat meaningless.

    Loved this post. It makes me want to never finish the book on improv…the metaphorical one, of course. 🙂

  2. Kevin Miller (@happywaffle) on July 16, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    Before you moved I think you, me, and Lampe were the only three improvisers in our ZIP code. So you were third-best AT WORST.

    Now that you’re all central, I can’t do nothin’ for ya, son.

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