[This article orginially appeared in the Merlin-Works February News Letter]
One of my improv teachers long ago told me about the Three C’s of Improvisation: Energy, Focus, and Commitment. It’s a simple and effective formula for great performance at almost any activity.
In this article I want to focus on the one element that actually starts with C—commitment. When I talk about commitment in improv, I do not mean long term commitment to a group or a project—although that is a great idea too. I’m talking about commitment to whatever is going on at the moment. Taking whatever you are doing and doing it to the fullest. If you are doing the dishes—really do the dishes! Get into it. Get your apron on, get the cleaning gloves on, turn the music up and scrub those suckers. If you call a meeting at work, get the agenda together, get the people together, say what you want to say, ask the right questions, step up and really lead it. If you are playing a character on stage, be that character in your body, in your voice, in your emotions, and in your actions. As one of my Improvisation 101 students put it recently, “Go big or go home.”
Committing to the everyday moments in your life can improve it. You are in this relationship or that job or this city and not any other—so commit to it or move on. Some people might think of this as “live each day as if it were your last.” I, personally, hate this statement. It’s incredibly morbid and for me, at least, inspires panic instead of commitment. If this were my last day, I definitely wouldn’t work out, eat right, get a good night’s sleep, or have a cent left in my bank account. I would abandon all the things that serve me in the long term. The fun would be over real soon. I think a better expression would be “Live each day as if it was the exact day you wanted.” Commit to each activity fully, as if out of all the options, this is what you chose.
The benefits of commitment are vast.
Commitment makes things more fun. We like to play with people that are committed to the game and put themselves in to it. Take a sports analogy: you want to play tennis with someone who’s going to put in an effort and get that ball back to you, not someone who only hits the easy shots and then quits after things get tough.
Commitment adds energy. Commitment is the opposite of sarcasm, which lets the air out of the game and seeps energy from the group. Commitment pumps up the energy by engaging mind, body, and other people.
Commitment raises the level of play. When people are committed, they are playing at their fullest, using everything they have. The resulting work is of a higher quality.
Commitment is contagious. When one person in a group steps up and shows commitment, others are likely to follow. The converse is true as well. The first person to jump ship is usually not the last.
But commitment can go overboard. In the book Improvise This! How to Think on Your Feet So You Don’t Fall on Your Face by Mark Bergren, Molly Cox , they summarize the proper attitude well: “Take what you do seriously, and take yourself lightly.” If you are so personally committed that you take mistakes and missteps to heart, feeling defeated or angry, then many of the benefits of commitment quickly disappear.
In improv, there is an interesting balance of being fully committed to the moment, and, once it is gone, letting it go. In the moment, the only scene you can be in is the one that is happening right now. It will never happen again. So dig in and make the best of it using everything you’ve got. And when it’s over you let it go because you need all your attention for the next moment—heads up!–it’s already started.
The constant cycle of completely committing and effortlessly letting go makes improv an exciting way of being.