Presence is a Muscle. You Can Make It Stronger: The Merlin Works May 2017 Newsletter

“We have these ‘Popeye Arms,’ with these oversized planning muscles in our forearms and these weak presence muscles for our biceps.” Something like this was said by one of the members of 3 For All, the California-based improv super-group, in a workshop I attended about ten years ago. And it’s stuck with me ever since.

I’ve worked it in to my teaching routine, flexing my muscles and pretending to do tricep presses or bicep curls when I admit that thinking ahead is a useful skill, but that it’s not the best skill for all situations. And that our training is going to strengthen those weak, rarely-used muscles of presence and positivity. So it might feel a little uncomfortable at first. But that just means we are on the right track–discomfort leads to growth.

This year, as I’ve had the opportunity to exercise more (Thank you Austin Improv Soccer League and 9Round Fitness) I’ve been ruminating on the connection between presence and building muscles and the parallels between improv and sports:

1) Presence is a muscle. Saying Yes is a muscle. Imagination is a muscle. Okay, technically none of these are muscles. But they work like muscles. These skills get stronger when you practice them, they get weaker when you ignore them, and they need regular maintenance or they will go away.

2) You have to destroy what you have a little bit to get what you want. That’s how weightlifting works. You lift something heavy. It puts tiny tears in your muscles. Your body responds to that by dedicating resources to repair and strengthen those muscles. Your muscles get bigger and stronger.  The same is true of improv. You have to take risks, mess up, and try again if you want to get better at it. There’s no sitting back and thinking it through to be a better improviser. Just like watching a workout video won’t make you more fit.  For example, the other night, in Improv 101, we were playing “Electric Company,” a word association game set to a rhythm. We started off slowly and the group was at about a 50% success rate of saying their word on time, often hesitating and getting off the beat. So I did something counter-intuitive. I made them go three times faster. Instead of slowing down so they could have more time to think, I sped up so they had no time to think. And what happens when we go impossibly fast? Everyone freaks out. And then everyone’s performance improves. They were nailing it 90% of the time. Suddenly, when we push past what we think is possible, we start to make real progress.

3) You have to push yourself to the point of failure to win. My college housemate Victor, philosopher and body builder, once explained to me in the dining hall of our Co-op why weightlifting was his favorite sport. “It’s the only sport you are supposed to do until you fail. In fact, if you don’t fail, you don’t maximize your growth.” So you have to intentionally push yourself past your comfort zone to the point of exhaustion to get the most out of it, just like improv. I keep doing that at my new gym 9Round, which is kickboxing-based circuit training.  You go for three minutes a round and, hopefully, by the end of the last 30 second push, you feel a little bit like you are gonna die. That’s how you know you are done. And the next day or two, you are a little sore. And that’s also how you know you won. As we like to say in improv, “If you aren’t messing up, you aren’t doing it right.”


4) But you can’t get hung up on your failures. Think about a golfer getting the yips–missing the easy shots over and over. Why? Because they are thinking too hard, trying to hard, and thinking about the last time they missed. In improv and in sports you have to let go of the past and focus on the moment. The game moves too fast to do otherwise.

5) If presence is a muscle, improv is a sport. You don’t know how the game will go, what moves will be made at what time, and, if it’s a half-way decent match, you shouldn’t know how it’s going to end. But you do know the players will be working together, executing moves, pursuing objectives, and it will include moments of brilliance and mediocrity. And even though the entire event is unscripted, the players practice every week: they work on their skills, their team work, their communication. They study tape, get coached and work on scenarios that might come up on game day. And the crowds love it for all of these reasons and more.

6) You have to change your workout to maintain your results. Our bodies and minds are essentially lazy (or efficient depending on how you look at it.) Whatever activity we do, whether it’s running or playing Bippity Bop, it gets easier the more times you do it. So you have to either A) keep tweaking the games to add new challenges or layers B) keep trying new games that are hard and uncomfortable C) make it EPIC and go faster, harder, louder to make the same game more challenging. Otherwise you slowly stop seeing the benefit.

If presence is a muscle and improv is a sport, this is why I love playing soccer with a bunch of improvisers on Sundays in the Austin Improv Soccer League. It’s so much FUN. Everyone is focused on the enjoyment of the activity. We don’t have much stoppage of play for proper throw-ins or goal-kicks because everyone knows we just want to maximize playtime over following every rule. Everyone gets that being too aggressive, like slide-tackling, is unwelcome because if someone got hurt, it would be no fun for anyone. All levels are welcomed on to the field from occasional kids under 10 to seasoned players over 60. And yet people are trying hard to do their best, defend their goal, score for their team, and set each other up for success. But when they mess up, often spectacularly with a self-goal, a whiff, or just wiping out all on your own, we laugh at ourselves. When they score beautifully, both teams cheer them on. And the smack talk is just as on-point as the game play.

All this is why, as much as I like doing one-time trainings on improv for organizations, I know the real impact comes from an improv practice, just like a yoga practice or a soccer practice. It’s the building of new mental and physical habits that really changes your way of being in the world, more than any one Aha moment.

How do you keep your muscles in shape? For improv or otherwise?
Shana Merlin
Founder, Merlin Works

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.

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