Monday, May 05, 2008

The Fine Art of Improvisation

It's Monday morning, the sun is shining, its warm out and I'm stuck inside at work when I want to be outside playing. So instead, I'm looking at pictures of Richard Armitage instead and typing up the ten handwritten pages of chapter 10 that I wrote last week.

It's also Cinco de Mayo today, which according to Wikipedia, is a regional holiday commemorating the victory of the Mexican forces against the French during the Battle of Puebla in 1852. The Emperor of the French, Napoleon III had put the Archduke Maximillien (brother of Franz Josef) on the throne as Emperor of Mexico (also see the movie Juarez with Paul Muni, Bette Davis as crazy Carlotta and Brian Aherne as Max). Which is another excuse for me to drink margaritas today after work with my friends. Viva La Revolution!

As for improvisation, I've come to think of life as one big improvisation. No matter what you think or plan to have happen, something else comes up, and you have to improvise. Take for instance, our chapter brunch on Saturday. We were supposed to have a private room, but we didn't, so we improvised with our speaker so that we could hear her while the rest of the people were dining at PJ Clarke's.

Which leads me to the great experience I had on Saturday at the Philoctetes Center. I talk about this place so often, people must be getting bored, but its had a major impact on my life since I've been attending roundtables. And not just because of cutie-pie author. This past weekend, the program was Cross-Cultural Improvisation. Three women, three very different backgrounds, and three different instruments came together to create some of the most beautiful music. It just made me want to get up and dance and improvise with them. And as anyone who saw my stellar performance piece to Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart at the New Jersey Conference last October knows it doesn't take much to get me up and dancing!

Geetha Ramanathan Bennett played an instrument called a veena that I confused with a sitar becausae I'm stupid about world music. Jane Ira Bloom played soprano saxophone (I have a thing for the saxophone which explains my crush on Jimmy Sommers) and Min Xiao-Fen plays the Chinese pipa which is also an instrument that kind of looks like a weird guitar. They were accompanied by Frank Bennett on the mrdangham (South Indian drum). Poor guy had to sit on the floor in an uncomfortable position for like 2 hours while they played.

Oh and one of the cooler things was Min Xiao-Fen had created this really groovy wall hanging on black silk with red writing that was the word dragon in Chinese in different ways. Since I was born in the year of the dragon (wood dragon to be precise), I found that most interesting. I've always been drawn to dragons, its why I love Katie Macalister's Dragon Sept books so much when I couldn't tolerate some of her other stories. Also the Dragon is one of the luckiest signs to be born under in the Chinese zodiac.

They all had such interesting stories about their instruments and how they came to play them, and the types of music they learned in their native countries. But somehow it all came together, these three disparate instruments in harmony that was just breath-taking. Geetha Ramanathan Bennett told a wonderful story about being shy when it came to singing until she met her husband and then she practised because she wanted to mesmerize him with her voice so that he would marry her. I wish I could do the same thing with my dancing for cutie-pie author.

Anyway, my point and I do have one, is that you wouldn't think that these three women could improvise together as well as they do. And improvising can be a wonderful thing. Relationships also involve a certain amount of improvisation. Just when you think that you know what is going on, they can take a turn, and you just have to go with it. No matter how hard you map out the scene in your head, the other person will never say the things that you thought that they would in your scenario (plus they may have their own scenario), so you have to improvise. You can't control relationships, except in fiction, and sometimes not even then!

It can take your work to another level. If you don't get stuck into thinking that something has to happen a certain way, if you can let your mind free, you can let your imagination soar in wonderful ways. You just have to let go and that's the thing I think that people get weirded out by. I think we're all control freaks in a strange way.

When I was acting, I used to hate to improv. Give me a script in my hand and I'm fine. No script and I get anxious. But somehow, I would manage, if I just checked my brain at the door and just let whatever came into my head come out of my mouth on stage or in an improv in class.

Sometimes I think you have to do that in writing to. Know where the story is going, but just improv the scene. If necessary, get some friends together, tell them the situation and let them act it out. You'll be amazed and what you might actually get out of it.

Thanks for reading,



Megan Frampton said...

Improvisation requires a certain trust in yourself, which is great if you can tap into it.

Glad you could go with the flow, sorry to hear about the chapter brunch.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Its one of the hardest things to do, particularly in acting. I imagine in music it would be even harder, that's why I was so impressed with the musicians, to be able to do what is so hard verbally, but with instruments is awesome.

The chapter brunch was fun, but it would have been better if we had had the private room we had actually booked. But what are you going to do? At least the 3 mimosas I drank helped. Oh and reading Marley's books which I finished Saturday night.