Plotlines and Pilgrimage by Evey McKellar

Your answer is in your partner’s eyes.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard an improv teacher say this to you in one of your levels. You’re playing a game of Mindmeld, and you’re staring at the ceiling trying to think of the right word to say next. Or, you’ve entered a scene and your mind is blank; you’re staring at the floor trying to find your initiation line. Even during a game of Crazy Eights as we count down on hands and feet from 8 all the way down 1, each of my teachers has encouraged us to make eye contact throughout the exercise.

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Your answer is in your partner’s eyes.

Making this eye contact creates connection. Even though my over-analytical brain struggles to understand it, every single time, they’ve been right: when I look into my partner’s eyes and connect with them in the present moment, sure enough, together we find our way forward.

While there are plenty (six levels worth at least!) of tools and skills that make for a great improviser, if we sacrifice being fully present, we disconnect from the moment, ourselves, and each other.

It’s different than a movie script where the plotline leads the way. You have your line, I have my line, and we follow the roadmap until we reach our predictable destination. For plotlines we plan ahead and stick to our pre-scripted dialogue; we can get stuck on autopilot, riding the conveyor belt mindlessly to our culturally prescribed destination.

Improv is more like a pilgrimage, an ancient practice of going on a journey of unpredictable encounters and unexpected destinations. Pilgrims have long traveled to sacred or renowned sites, anticipating surprise, expecting the road to hold unforeseen treasures and undetermined time frames. To go on pilgrimage is to set a heading but to embrace being interrupted, caught off guard, encountering strangers along the way. To go on pilgrimage is to practice a posture of presence to this moment, your body and your feelings right now, and to the people around you.

Your answer is in your partner’s eyes.

To walk in a posture of plot lines can keep us fixated on how we expect something to go. As I hold onto my analytical overthinking, I miss the forest for the trees and struggle to join in finding the fun thing of the scene. In the posture of pilgrimage and improv, we arrive to the scene open-handed and open-minded, offering our line but listening intently for how the contributions of others alter and change the expectations we had. Improv teaches us to be nimble pilgrims onstage and offstage, arriving with flexibility and receptivity to the work created together. The road of improv, like the road of pilgrimage, teaches us to release our expectations of what lies ahead, and this release frees us up to a posture of awareness, alertness, awakeness, and aliveness. This posture transforms us more than any ‘arrival’ could.

Your answer is in your partner’s eyes.

Imagine not having to have it all figured out.

Imagine the freedom to embrace each moment as it is, free of expectation or cultural narrative. 

Imagine the improviser as leader, skilled in arriving fully present and in collaborative creativity, attuned to their staff in a profound way that makes the team feel heard and empowered.

Imagine the improviser as community member, attentive to exploring the scene with partners and paying attention to how they’re feeling in their body and emotions, collaborative and self-aware as they strive to work for mutuality and reconciliation in communities.

Imagine the improviser, eagerly anticipating the fun thing and on the lookout for the game found and created together, resilient in the face of tragedy, setback, and grief, able to both embrace themselves and also to pivot and change course, free of plotlines and releasing cultural expectations for how life would be by this point.

Improv teaches that it’s not necessarily where we end up that matters the most, but that how we go will determine how and where we arrive, and who we become. Improv invites us to release control and trust ourselves, our partners, and the process. Improv assures us that if we are present to the now and fully present to each other, together we will know what needs to be done next.

Your answer is in your partner’s eyes.