Dev Rogers treated her cancer as a kind of liberation. Diagnosed when she was 70, she underwent a year of surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation with all the misery and fear those treatments bring. Her response: she took up Improv.
“Cancer gave me permission to act,” she says. “I was attracted to acting as a child, but it never translated. Now I thought, ‘Why not?’” She has played in several off-Broadway shows. Then she found improvisational theater.
Improv is theater without a script. You may start with a general suggestion: “We’re sailors,” “Your four year old friend just got a dog,” or whatever. In some improv, the audience shouts out suggestions that the cast takes on. What happens with the general situation and suggestions is up to the performers. What you do with your character is up to you.
It sounds like life, doesn’t it? You are given a character to play: born with a specific body and mind, a particular family, a given place, time, and culture. You’re rich or you’re poor, you’re educated or you’re not. You learn what your parents and society teach you, and those pre-birth and post-birth factors are who you are. Then you go with it. You do the best you can.
Dev Rogers says, “One of the great experiences for me was learning the mantra of improv. Always say ‘Yes…And…’” If your cast member points to a pile of pillows and says, “Let’s climb that mountain,” you could say, “I can’t. I’m afraid of heights,” but the show probably won’t go anywhere from there. You say, “Let’s!” and head for the pile and do funny or dramatic stuff with it.
Notice how “Yes…and…” makes everything life throws at you into an opportunity. If you do exactly what you want to do all the time, you will do the same things over and over. You might get really good at them, but you won’t grow. By responding enthusiastically to the challenges life brings and to what your fellow cast members bring, you develop sides of yourself you might not have known.
The approach of saying “Yes!” to life enabled Dev to turn her cancer into a starting point, and she’s still creating, recently starting a stand-up comedy practice. 80 is not too old for improvising your life.
What else does improv teach?
• You can improvise anything. Imagine your family life as an unscripted situation comedy or drama. How could you act differently? Imagine being stopped by a cop. That’s theater; somebody may in fact be videotaping it. How can you steer the interaction toward a happy ending, being aware that the police follow a script you cannot see and improvise based on their own experience and prejudices?
• Improv brings imagination to life. Kids do improv all day long. When we were three, a delivery carton was a bus. As we get older, we forget that magic. A box of old junk could be treasure in the right hands. Tea and cookies with an aging neighbor can be an enlightening experience if we see it that way. For a brief time and particular set of people, a pile of pillows really is a mountain.
• Improv gets better, the fewer expectations we have and judgments we make. Jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock talks about playing with trumpet genius Miles Davis. At one performance, Davis was playing a fabulous solo when Hancock played a “completely wrong chord.” What he played was so far off that he couldn’t continue for half a minute. But Davis never missed a beat. “Miles played a series of notes that made the wrong chord right!” Hancock marveled. The band played on.
When Hancock asked Davis how he had coped so well with the wrong chord, he said he didn’t hear a mistake. It was just what life brought him in that moment, and he said “yes” to it and kept creating. Think about having that attitude to the mistakes life brings you. How might your reaction to life change?
• Saying “yes” to life doesn’t mean saying “yes” to every idiotic idea some fool throws at you. When you’re dealing with fools, step out of improv mode. It’s OK to say No sometime. But think first. I have missed wonderful opportunities by saying no too quickly.
Not all Comedy
The improv you see on television or at a theater usually makes you laugh. That’s what the actors are trying to do, and it’s good. Improv isn’t limited to comedy, though. It can be drama. It can be adventure. It can be tragedy. You can still say “Yes…and…”
Illness almost forces us to improvise. You can try to tough it out (“fight this thing”) with the help of doctors and drugs, or you can take the suggestion and do something different with your life. You can do both. My life with multiple sclerosis has been one long improvisation. I never know what symptoms I’ll have from day to day, what I’ll be able to do and what I won’t. I don’t know what life will be like in five hours, much less five years.
Sometimes changes come and I don’t want to say “Yes.” I sometimes resist the modifications and supports I need to keep exercising, to get out of the apartment, to stay active, to be sexual, or other areas that get compromised. I have a choice to say “No,” but then I won’t go anywhere or have many experiences. I won’t be much fun to be around. Chronic illness, injury and disability, teach you to say ‘Yes,’ if you want to keep a life.
The improv approach applies to all our lives, not only the sick or disabled. People come and go; jobs come and go. Everything changes. As the great poet and jazz musician Avotcja Jiltonilro says, “When you experience a failure or a setback, you take it as the starting point for a new journey.” The path might not be one you would have wanted or chosen, but it can take you beautiful places.
When you see life as improv with the world or with God or however you call existence, every day can be an adventure. Or not, it’s your choice. The audience suggestions will keep coming. If you’re like me, you’ll feel more aware and alive, more creative and less despairing when you go with Yes…and… most of the time.