Have you ever invested feelings in an event and the way you want it to happen? Then something happens and you realize what you had hoped won’t or didn’t happen the way it should in your idyllic imagination. The scene is ruined. It seems difficult to enjoy any part of what was supposed to happen. I’ve been in that situation more than a few times in my life.
The first one that comes to mind happened a few years ago. I had purchased two tickets to go see George Carlin for my birthday several months in advance. At that time, I just wanted to see Carlin; I enjoy laughing at his jokes. I also had started dating someone. Time moved forward, the relationship became closer and I became attached to the idea of going to go see Carlin with my boyfriend. It was going to be the “perfect, for me, birthday date.” My attachment to this idea set in before I had even communicated with him about it. A few days before the show, we broke up. I was almost more upset about my adventure to see Carlin ruined than I was about the break-up! I didn’t think I would be able to enjoy Carlin any other way.
This type of thing is exactly what our teacher warned us against in the beginner Improv class I’ve started taking. We are told repeatedly: do not commit to the outcome of a scene, it prevents the scene from being good. So if we aren’t supposed to have a scene in mind, what are we supposed to do? Be with the person in the moment, be prepared to go off in some completely unknown direction, build off and be supportive of each other’s ideas. The most important thing is being committed to who your character is in the scene.
In Improv, commitment to character is not the same as identity. An overly simplistic difference is that character is what you do and how you feel, while identity is how you are labeled. You build your identity with your partner or partners over the course of the scene so in any scene you may be a mother, a dictator, a child, a daisy puller, a dragon slayer, a deaf person. Commitment to character is about what feelings this person has and what this person would do in the current situation. Is your character the type of person to harbor ill-will and only show it in a passive aggressive way? Is your character the kind that is very anxious and jumpy? What would an anxious and jumpy character look like with an identity as a dictator? A mother? A dragon slayer!
Commitment to character in real life is a very similar process. It isn’t about your job, your socio-economic status, your heritage or the myriad of other identities we find ourselves laden with that are also sometimes out of our control. Commitment to character is how we feel and act in any given situation and what kind of consistency we have with it. If we commit to be true to our character, whether it is the character we want to develop ourselves into, or the character we believe we already have, how do we show that in any given situation?
It is also important not to judge other people’s character by one or two simple snapshots. First impressions are not always correct. We may make a fundamental attribution error, like this blogger eloquently explains. Getting to know someone before finalizing opinions on them can open us up to more friendships and adventure. It gives us more information to figure out if we really are a match.
If I had been committed to character rather than outcome, I would have remembered that I was going to go see Carlin because I enjoy laughing, not because I was going to have the perfect date. If I had not become attached to my imaginary idyllic scene to begin with, I wouldn’t have spent days being upset and un-attaching myself. I could have directed that energy elsewhere. What happened when I got to the Carlin show with my girl friend was that I found myself in the reality of the moment and finally let go of my attachment to the scene I wanted.
Improv is a great way to reinforce this idea in myself. I get to practice weekly and feel the differences in a scene when I commit to character versus when I become attached to the outcome of a scene. I have found that improv helps improve my relationship with myself because I am learning more about myself. My enjoyment of life is also improving because I get to practice how to let go of how I think the scene should be and go with the flow.