“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”
- Eckhart Tolle
Art Improv! What?!?! It’s my new favorite obsession. Let me bring you into the scene: Imagine an empty room filled with the sound of Thelonious Monk on the saxophone and happy voices chatting away. The floor is covered with blank canvases, paintbrushes, and unopened acrylic paints of all colors: yellow, red, magenta, green… You hear a voice say, “Okay! Let’s get our flow on! Let’s Paint!”
The canvas is now in your hand. What is your first thought as you look at it? Are you excited to dive right in and create a masterpiece? Does a feeling of dread wash over you as you get a case of the “freeze-brain” and you think, “Oh no! I can’t possibly come up with an idea of what to paint and I certainly can’t make anything perfect on-demand.” Or are you just so pumped to get messy with the colors and see what might emerge from the chaos?
Welcome to the final night and celebration of Improv for the Artist. Improv for the Artist was a fun-filled, 8-Week, Applied Improv class that I taught this past fall at The Oregon Contemporary Theatre in Eugene, Oregon. The purpose of the class was to help artists of all disciplines to uncover the causes for getting stuck in their work and to discover new ways of operating in order to experience maximum flow, courageous expression of their authentic voice, and joy in their work. By signing up for the class, they gave themselves permission and time to experiment, get curious, and explore – without the pressure to develop an end project.
So often as artists (or humans doing anything for that matter), we have a fixed idea of what our art form (or life) should look like, or we try to mold that art (or life) to meet the expectations of others. We can get so caught up in achieving the “perfect” outcome that we don’t allow ourselves to play and experiment and really listen to the creative spirit and where it wants to lead us, and as a result, we either don’t do the art (or life) we feel called to do or we don’t feel like we are truly ourselves in that art (or life). We get stuck and frustrated and totally bummed out. And no one wants to stay in that space for too long. Am I right?
Enter Improv for the Artist. After weeks of play, exploration, and discovery through improv games, writing, and art, we were ready for a night of fun and creative celebration. On this last night of the Improv for the Artist class, it was time to unleash the creative beast by conducting a "creative-flow" test through the aforementioned improv painting exercise: Let It Go and Let It Flow.
For this exercise, each student was given a blank canvas with 10-minutes to paint. After the time was up, they passed the painting to the person on their right and that person had 5-minutes to interpret the new painting and then add their own unique touch. In 5-minute intervals, students passed the paintings to the right until their original painting came back to them.
What was amazing about this exercise is that it went nothing like how imagined it would go (which is really how so many of my improv exercises go), the irony, I know. I thought this would be a fun exercise in Letting Go of Attachment, the Beauty of Co-Creation, and as a bonus - a great celebratory token for folks to take home with them to remember all the fun we had in class.
I had no idea what we would uncover in the next 50 minutes.
As students began, I noticed that some dove right in, while others stared at the blank canvas with a bit of terror. A few looked pensively at the paints as they plotted out the next 10 minutes and made a plan for their piece of art. How do you think you would begin?
The next moments of discovery came when it was time to pass their paintings to the next person. A few passed their paintings off quickly, while others held onto them a bit too tightly before letting them go – afraid to give up their work and trust it in the hands of another. And I get it. Letting go of our creative vision means that it might not end up the way we planned, and if you are a person who likes control (and I do), surrendering/sharing can be scary. Who knows what kind of serious disaster might happen? I mean The Snuggie wasn’t just a one-man job.
As people began to add to the new painting, there were again those who dove right in - ready to put their stamp on it in; while others held back from adding to someone else’s work - not wanting to “mess up” someone else’s work. After we had passed each painting around the circle and everyone had a chance to add their own unique brand of genius, the time came for the great reveal and another moment for discovery. What stood out to me was a unanimous feeling of sheer delight at the power of co-creation. Each person was amazed at where the group had taken their art piece and at the inclusion of small details they never would have imagined adding themselves. If anyone was disappointed about their original vision being destroyed, they didn’t show it. Instead, everyone seemed fascinated and curious to hear how and why people had added their elements to the work handed to them.
The old adage says, how we do one thing, is how we do everything, and in this one painting exercise, the participants in the class gained new insights into what has been holding them back from beginning, completing, or sharing the thing that they want most to do or creating the art they feel called to create.
As the group reflected on their experience, it was fascinating to hear their insights. Some noticed that they were waiting for inspiration in order to begin. Others approached the blank canvas with curiosity and excitement and some felt the need to get it “just right” which they noticed kept them from beginning the piece at all. The group also found moments of discovery when it was time to pass along their painting. For those who were less inclined to pass the painting, they were able to see how the tendency to hold on or back played out in their own lives as well and kept them closed off to collaboration, sharing their work, and adding their own valuable and important contribution to their communities. For those participants who had previously expressed a fear of calling themselves an artist or fully stepping into and owning their authentic expression, this moment was a powerful revelation in how fear keeps them from contributing in other areas of their lives.
For me, what began as a fun little celebration exercise, turned out to to be a final class test, if you will, that would help us all uncover where it was we were still getting stuck in our creative process (life) and/or where we had grown over the course of 8-weeks.
In the end, eight paintings emerged that were all unique. And each one began as one small idea from one individual, yet blossomed and grew into something that the original creator could have never imagined. This collective delight in co-creation truly lodged as a new truth in all of us: While it may be hard to let go of our ideas about how something should be, may it be a canvas, a work project, remodeling the house, when we let go - just a little - and trust our idea in the hands of well-intentioned others to add to it their thoughts, ideas, and talents, this is where magic happens and new and potentially even greater ideas are birthed.
A beautiful thing about the process of creation in improv (in any form) is that not only does it allow for a product to be created in the moment, a beautiful, never-to-be duplicated work of art, but when we take the time to dissect those moments within the creative process, we are shown where it is that we get stuck. We are then able to take that new information and apply it to whatever art or life project that is calling to us right now - this is transformation of the best kind. Self-knowledge creates an opportunity for great empowerment in our life choices and also, as artists, allows us to hopefully, relax a little into our work so we can get into the flow and create with abundance, vigor, and joy.
What blank canvas is staring at you today?