The Moment of….. Anticipation: The Merlin Works April Newsletter

Building Anticipation…
Without Runaway Expectations

“To the most beautiful moment in life… better than the deed, better than the memory, the moment…of anticipation” —Jacques, The Simpsons, Season 1 Episode 9: Life on the Fast Lane

There’s a moment from the very first season of The Simpsons, a 26-second clip from 1990, that has stuck with me ever since. After Marge receives a disappointing birthday present from her husband Homer, a bowling ball with his name engraved on it, she doubles down and starts bowling. At the lanes she meets Jacques, the seductive French bowling pro, and stumbles into the beginning of a love affair, wooed by Jacques attentiveness in contrast to Homer’s absorption. In my favorite moment, Jacques is freshly out of the shower, looking in the mirror, getting ready for his rendezvous with Marge. And he talks about how that moment, while he’s putting on aftershave and fantasizing about what is to come, is, in fact, the best part of the whole experience: “The most beautiful moment in life… better than the deed, better than the memory, the moment…of anticipation.”

I’ve found this to be true for me. Long ago I realized that the pleasure of planning of a vacation, the expectation of meeting up with an old friend, the looking forward to seeing the concert you bought tickets for months ago, can often exceed the experience itself. Not that the experience is necessarily disappointing, but that it is often brief–a few hours or days–while the anticipation can last for months. Months of fantasizing in the car, mind wandering at work, or daydreaming in bed before the alarm goes off.

And I remember feeling that way when I was first taking improv classes. If they were on a Wednesday, that Wednesday would be the peak of my week. I would look forward to it, imagine myself being hilarious in a scene, think about the characters I might play, and save a good outfit for it (better not wear these jeans today, I’ll want to wear them to improv on Wednesday.) It wasn’t just those few hours in class or rehearsal, but the whole week, that was shaped by it for the better.

I might be in the minority on this. Most people will tell you not to get your hopes up. If you can keep your expectations low, you might be happily surprised. But more importantly, if you build future events up too much, you might be disappointed, even heartbroken. You might actually ruin a perfectly good experience by looking forward to it too much. It puts too much pressure on it. So save yourself the heartache and don’t expect anything at all.

But for me, if I skip the build-up, I might be skipping the best part of the whole experience: the deliciousness of suspense.

“But,” you might say, “you’re an improv lady. Aren’t you supposed to be in the moment? Isn’t this whole anticipating things heresy? You shouldn’t be looking ahead, you should be enjoying things (or not) for what they are at the time!”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Is there a way to enjoy looking forward to something without ruining it? Is there a way to be in the moment and savoring looking ahead? A way to separate the way you play out things in your head from the experience when it finally arrives?

The Cowgirl Cabaret, the new country and western improv musical from my group, Girls Girls Girls Improvised Musicals. It’s been so fun studying the genre and learning about Mama Songs, Talkin’ and Beltin’ songs, Songs about the Good Old Days, and even trying out a little yodeling. And as all the work and marketing and studying and promotions build up, it’s hard not to get a little bent out of shape. I get nervous about the quality of the show or the size of the audience. But when it’s showtime, I have to let go of that and do my thing, with as little expectation as possible.

But how do you do that? I learned a great tool from the Applied Improv Network Conference years ago. They use what’s called an OpenSpace Conference or and UnConference for a part of their events. Essentially, individuals at the conference in the moment pitch what sessions they would like to lead to participate in, writing them up on a piece of paper, which then gets assigned to a room and a time slot on the big board. Conference attendees use the Law of Two Feet, meaning they can use their two feet to go where they think they can either contribute to or benefit from what’s happening. So you can leave any session at any time and show up at a new session at any time. It’s an incredibly freeing, productive and applicable way to run a conference, meeting the needs of the people who are actually in attendance.

The Foundation of the OpenSpace methodology is four fundamental rules:
Whoever shows up is the right group
Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
Whenever it starts is the right time
When it’s over, it’s over.
These are simple, powerful statements. And I’ll often say them to myself in some form as a mantra before an event begins. Sometimes I’ll even say them out loud to the group.


Take, for example, my Free Intro to Improv Class, (next one, May 9th!) an event that is important to the financial well-being of my company because it is one of the main means by which I get new students to register for improv class and join our customer base. At my last one, I had six people show up, much less than the usual 10-20. And two of the attendees were already current students. I was disappointed about what that would mean for registrations and worried about keeping the energy up for such a small, diverse crew. So at the start of class I actually said out loud, as much to myself as to the students, “we have exactly who is supposed to be here tonight,” and rolled right into my lesson plan. And we had a fantastic class. Like, it was really fun. Not just for them, but for me, which isn’t always a given for this old improv vampire. And at the end of class–drumroll please—no one signed up for Improv 101. Zero registrations. Oh well.

Fast forward a few weeks. Well, when I showed up to teach the first day of Improv 101, three out of four of the Free Intro Students were registered! More registrations than I normally get from a much larger Free Intro Class. And the class was full with a waitlist. So it turns out, I was exactly right. The right people DID show up. And what happened was exactly what was supposed to happen. And I think I kinda MADE that happen if that doesn’t sound too egotistical and magical.

So I’m gonna keep on working that fine line of anticipation and acceptance. And let me know if you have any tricks to handle expectations when it’s finally time to do your thing.


About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
Replies: 1

One comment

  1. Kathy said:

    That long period of anticipation is about the stage being set. The show has been scheduled. The family trip has been planned. The possibility for great things to happen has been created. Anticipation is the celebration of opportunity.

    That’s why you’re the Queen of Improv. Even before the opportunity arrives, you expect good things to happen – and then they do!

    Thanks for being who you are and doing what you do!

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