My Big Breakthrough

“…trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight. While it is commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind comes with a hidden cost; it inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs.” – Jonah Leherer , from the book IMAGINE

The game was Exits and Entrances. About two years into my study with Viola, I had a breakthrough. We met every Tuesday afternoon at the El Centro Theater, a small 99 seat equity waiver house just off Melrose. The theater was set up with a set with several doors and curtains leading off stage at floor level. The audience was raked. “Count off in two’s!” Viola split the group into two teams. “When an actor enters the scene or exits the scene” Viola announced, “he must enter with presence and exit the same way. In this game we will make exits and entrances the focus. The problem will be to capture everyone’s attention whenever you leave the stage or enter.” We all nodded. Of course every actor must make the most of his entrance or exit. “Pick a where with plenty of exits and entrances – A bus station, a department store, or some public place.” She said. “Then you will make as many entrances and find as many ways to make an exit as possible while playing. If you exit the scene without everyone’s full attention, we in the audience will yell ‘Come back!’ and you will have to remain in the scene until you find a way off. Once you are off, you must find a way to enter the scene and get the attention of all the onstage players. If you enter and don’t have everyone’s attention, we will call out ‘Go Back!'” She smiled. “That’s it. Make as many entrances and exits as you can.” We counted off. I was a two. (Thank god!) This gave me a chance to see what this whole thing was all about. Let others go first, that way I’ll know what to do. My fear of doing it wrong and wanting to be ‘good’ at it was still a major issue with me. The first team of eight players huddled together and decided on their ‘where’. We Two’s did the same. Team One went first. They did a restaurant kitchen. Everyone started on stage. The scene started well enough, but it soon got very frantic and loud. Waiters burst in complaining about customers. Cooks threw temper tantrums and stormed off. Deliveries were made. Because everyone was busy creating their drama to get off and on it became a free –for-all. Some players made it on and off easily, and some did not. “Give and Take!” Viola shouted. Cooks were screaming at waiters and managers were yelling to get orders out. Customers burst in complaining of bad service or to congratulate the chef. It was a loud and often fractured scene. There was lots of urgency to get on and off and that put people in their heads. Viola would holler. “No Urgency!” We would roar with laughter when we had to call “Go Back!” or “Come Back!” to those poor players who could not grab everyone’s attention. I sat next to Viola and laughed along with her as she coached. The scene continued and the noise and action escalated. It became harder and harder to get everyone onstage to notice each exit and entrance. When someone did, it was super theatrical and hilarious. But it was still funny when they couldn’t make it and had to try again. “One Minute!” Viola called. Soon the scene came to an end. She got up and walked out onto the playing area. “I have a question. Is it possible to make an entrance or exit without screaming or shouting?” Silence. We looked at each other. “Of course” I thought to myself. “It can’t all be yelling or shouting.” “Did your entrances and exits come out of the ongoing action or did you have to invent ways to come on and get off? Or did you discover ways to get on and off through the playing of the scene?” It was apparent that most everyone on team one had to create a little extra drama when they tried an exit or entrance. I got that they stopped paying attention to the whole and only involved themselves in their own situation. It was obvious that each player was out for him or herself and it became loud and messy. The franticness came out of needing to invent a reason to get on or off. There was no real listening. It became clear that there was little give and take. “Even in the midst of lots of action, you must be a PART OF THE WHOLE!” Viola shouted emphatically. “Why can’t stillness TAKE? Does it always have to be ya da de da! A bunch of people yelling and running around!?” she paused to let that comment sink in. “Ok, the Twos, now.” Viola sat down. Our team had decided we would be people in a medieval town square with a market. We could be merchants, peasants, and knights – a whole host of cool characters. As usual, my mind was racing with ideas on who could I be, and what would I do to get myself on and off. I joined the group and started out as a hide vendor parading up and down and trying to interest folks in my pelts. Someone called out that the King was coming. Several of us tried to run off to see. “Come back!” Back we came and continued in the scene looking for excuses to get off stage. I tried getting sick from some bad water and hurrying off to vomit. “Come back!” I came back on. I can’t remember clearly what everyone else was doing. I was so in my head about what I had to do, I stopped focusing the scene as a whole. I was not connected to anything other than my little scenarios. Every time I didn’t make it, I got more and more urgent. Finally I sold a pelt and went crazy with joy! Hysterically happy, I ran off stage. I made it. Once off stage, I tried coming back on with very little success. I stumbled back on stage with an arrow in my back. “Go back!” Then I tried piggybacking on someone else’s entrance – literally! I jumped on his back and told him to bring me in wounded with an arrow. We both didn’t make it. The scene continued. The King and Queen made it on and off with a speech and a regal wave. I was stuck backstage. I tried to think what could I do or be to make an entrance. Everything I tried resulted in “Go back!” “One minute!” Viola called. I was so frustrated! I simply gave up. I stopped thinking about how to get on stage. But I was desperate to make it back on before the game was over. I decided I would just jump out on the stage from behind the curtain for no reason whatsoever. I only wanted to jump as far onto the stage as possible. This was my last chance and I was going onstage no matter what. I was going to make the biggest entrance possible and I did not have a clue what to do after that. My mind was a blank. I didn’t care what the hell Viola thought or what anyone thought. I was just going to get on stage goddammit! “What the hell?” I thought. “The game is over anyway.” I gathered all my strength and sprang through the curtain in a huge leap. It was such a big move that it stopped all action on the stage. I had gotten everyone’s attention. Seeing this sudden attention on me I stood there a second. Then from out of nowhere I boomed “HOW DARE YOU! How dare you not invite me to this festival to greet the King! I, who protect this town with my MAGIC!” Larry Dilg, another actor in the class played a cowering villager and held up his hand to offer an explanation. My hand shot out with a pointing finger and a look of vengeance. He grabbed his throat and began to strangle. After a few agonizing beats, I released him. The rest of the town was struck dumb. No one moved. I cast a last look around. “You have been warned! Snub me again and feel my wrath!” I gathered up my cape, which by now had appeared on my majestic shoulders. I crouched low and sprang back behind the curtain, gone in a puff of magic smoke! Pause. Then the room rang out with applause. I had done it. I made an entrance and exit that wrapped up the village scene in a wonderfully theatrical way. I came out from behind the curtain and climbed back into my seat near Viola, who set up the next game and had the first group get up to set up a new where. I felt good having achieved the focus. But I did not preen or beam at my own success. I was very relaxed and quiet in my mind. I felt really alive and alert and in my own skin, for practically the first time since I started taking class. It is hard to describe. I was not proud of myself or relieved or even pleased to have succeeded. Nor did I look to Viola for approval as I had always done before. Up until this moment, it was very important to me that Viola see me as having done well. I felt at once calm and thrilled in the same moment. I just sat there taking in the room eager to go on to the next game. Viola was busy with her notes. She was thumbing through the book and making some notations in it, every once in a while glancing over at me. I was sitting a few seats away from her. I smiled at her. She leaned over to say something to me and then thought better of it and went back to her notes. She called the class back and began to describe the next game. I can’t remember what it was, but I do remember her glancing at me a few times during it. Finally she leaned over and beckoned me to lean in to her. I leaned over and she said very matter-of-factly, almost off-handedly, “you realize you had a breakthrough there…” “I know.” I said just as casually. But I knew at a deep level something shifted. She nodded, satisfied with my answer and went on with the class. We never spoke of it again. I knew why Viola struggled with even mentioning it to me. She was worried I would be flattered by her noticing or seeing it as telling me ‘nice work’, putting me back into my (up until then ) very heavy Approval / Disapproval mindset. My appearance as the wizard was a turning point. This was that flash of insight into my own understanding of the work, and my development as a player and coach. Up until that point, my work in one way or another was dependent on what other people thought of me. (Especially Viola, even though I knew better) I wanted to be a good actor, a good boy, a good teacher and a nice person. I was motivated by that approval/disapproval syndrome and I didn’t even realize it. Viola did. But she was not about to tell me how to transcend it. She would tell me many things, but never how to do something. Any praise I might get would only motivate me to work for that instead of true improvisation. I occasionally had flashes good work before this realization, but it was just a brief respite from my constant prison of approval/disapproval. Viola kept mum about how she felt about my work. She would only coach each game and patiently wait for it to happen to me. And two years in, happen to me it did. What happened to me that day was momentous. I found my autonomy. I began to operate from a new place. I gave up the crutch of needing to have something to ‘go with’ onstage – Of having to come on prepared in some way (playwriting) and replaced it with nothing. I was excited to give anything a try without a thought of doing it for some external reason. Viola was still my teacher and I her student. But outside of that we were just two people after that explosion of spontaneity that is improvisation. I believe that day our work together as mentor / mentee began. What I realized then and from then on, was that stepping out into the unknown will make you available to receive the gift of true spontaneity and you will receive what you need in the moment. It will come to you in a flash! No fear, no pride, nothing but the joy of discovery of the thing itself. When I leapt onto stage, it was not in defiance of failing. It was not with the expectation of success. It was not to gain the respect of my teacher or the admiration of my fellow students. It was to enter the unknown with confidence, in hopes that something will happen without having to bring it with me. What shows up in the space is the right thing, no matter what it is. Others have said it in other ways. “The Universe will provide”, “Let go and let God” even “May the Force be with you.” The side coach “Out of the head and into the space! Let the space support you!” works for me.