“Let’s pretend I’m a tiger,” he says.
“Okay. Hey Tiger. I like your stripes,” I say.
“No! Let’s really pretend I’m a tiger,” he insists.
“Okay. Wow, you are so big, Tiger.” My eyes widen. “And your claws are so sharp! What’s your name?”
“Pretend for REAL! Really for real I’m a Tiger.”
“Ahhh! There’s a giant Tiger in my house! Help!”
I run off the couch towards the kitchen and Sebastian, my four-year-old chases after me, growling and waving his “paws” in the air.
Children know that what makes imagination play really thrilling is the commitment to the premise. And even though I can go full-force pretending on stage, I’m known to phone it in at home.
What’s fascinating to me is that Sebastian seems to have these self-determined levels of pretend that he likes to down and up-shift into, depending on the mood. And I see these same levels in myself and my improv students.
Say a player in a scene is endowed as a cowboy.
Level 1 Commitment: Verbal.
He says, “There used to be lots of cattle on this ranch.”
Level 2 Commitment: Physical
He grabs his imaginary belt buckle, squints, spits, and says in a Texas twang, “There used to be lots of cattle on this ranch.”
Level 3 Commitment: Emotional
It might be the dust in the wind, or having just sold his best steer, but his eyes are wet as he says, “There used to be lots of cattle on this ranch.”
Level 4 Commitment: Mental
He sees the wind blow the high grass on the prairie. He smells in the pungent mix of cow patties and hay bales. He remembers the days when the ranch was full of life. “There used to be lots of cattle on this ranch.”
Each level is more vulnerable than the next, which is why many people feel it’s easier to play with just verbal wit or physical comedy. But the most satisfying performances, for the audience and the player, are those full of commitment.
Sometimes, I find there’s even a weird, little-mentioned problem of over commitment. The person in class who is too physically committed. In the cowboy scene, they might intensely start acting like they are on a bucking bronco, whipping their body around the stage. Their clothes not fully covering them. Their skin getting flushed and sweaty. It’s like they are too into it. They have pent up energy that needs to get out. Or they are trying to hard or wanting it too much. Or they are so far in their own world that they’ve lost touch with their scene partner. Or it feels like the improviser is no longer in control and the character has taken over. It’s very vulnerable for them and uncomfortable for the class. I’m not sure how to categorize it exactly. But it’s terrible and it feels like commitment gone wrong. As soon as we start worrying about the player instead of the scene, something has gone too far.
And as we are starting the new year, making resolutions, commitment is an issue. Because anybody can say they are going to lose ten pounds. And anybody can say they are a cowboy or a tiger. But It’s the commitment that makes the difference. Committing too hard, though, can be scary.
And everyone has their own levels of commitment they are comfortable with. While Sebastian is delighted when I run screaming from his roaring Tiger, Maxwell, two years old, is a gentler soul. He says, “I’m a Tiger.” He roars as loud as a mouse and when widen my eyes and give a little scream of fear, he quickly stops and says, “It’s okay, mommy. I’m just pretending. I’m not a Tiger.”
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