I’ve been taking comedy improv lessons this last month at Montreal Improv with Brent Skagford. In our last class, Brent introduced us to some improv storytelling basics, one of the most important of which is the idea of accepting and stepping towards problems as they arise. “A couple who meet, get married and live happily ever after is not a story” explained Brent. “A couple who meet, discover they have nothing in common, suffer through every last bit of their differences, and somehow still end marrying and living happily ever after is.”
As in comedy improv, accepting and stepping towards problems is one of the keys to successful musical improvisation. Play an off-key note once and it sounds like a mistake. Play it intentionally a second time and chances are everyone will hear it as a very cool idea.
Accepting and stepping towards the problem also features in a story about the Buddhist teacher Trungpa Rinpoche, ending with a very different kind of benefit:
The first time I met Trungpa Rinpoche was with a class of fourth graders who asked him a lot of questions about growing up in Tibet and about escaping from the Chinese Communists into India. One boy asked him if he was ever afraid. Rinpoche answered that his teacher had encouraged him to go to places like graveyards that scared him and to experiment with approaching things he didn’t like. Then he told a story about travelling with his attendants to a monastery he’d never seen before. As they neared the gates, he saw a large guard dog with huge teeth and red eyes. It was growling ferociously and struggling to get free from the chain that held it. The dog seemed desperate to attack them. As Rinpoche got closer, he could see its bluish tongue and spittle spraying from its mouth. They walked past the dog, keeping their distance, and entered the gate. Suddenly the chain broke and the dog rushed at them. The attendants screamed and froze in terror. Rinpoche turned and ran as fast as he could—straight at the dog. The dog was so surprised that he put his tail between his legs and ran away.
– Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart (1997), p. 17.
In comedy improv – as in life – this “accepting and stepping towards” tactic is rooted in taking a basic “yes and” attitude to whatever happens to cross our paths moment by moment. You can find out more about this “yes and” approach in the following clip featuring Brent and his partner Marc Rowland at last year’s TEDx McGill.