The Improv Strategy: How Actors, Writers, And Jazz Musicians Get More Out Of Inevitable Reality Shifts


Reality Shifts are inevitable. They arrive as they please and change how you may have previously seen the world and how you participated in it. Most of the time, they completely erase the truths you previously relied on. In times like these, the road ahead can seem uncertain. Even invisible. But there is one strategy that can be adopted and deployed in times like these; arming you with the power to not just see the waves coming, but to ride them spectacularly, entertaining audiences and creating artful displays of mastery in the process.

In Richard Newton’s book, The Little Book of Thinking Big (a clichéd title that carries with it a surprisingly insightful text), Newton speaks of how a change, in reality, is inevitable and that it is up to the individual to decide whether to accept this shift and to move forward from that point or to resist it.

The resistance mentioned here sounds as if it were a powerful and intentional decision that dramatically displays itself when an individual fights hard against an obviously pressing and moving force. You might even picture a large group of soldiers standing their ground, holding up their shields and shouting toward the opposing monster that is ‘change.’

However, I have observed that the resistance that prevents new opportunities and a future for larger-than-life accomplishments is really very subtle. It is also extremely contagious and stacks very neatly — which of course, is a very scary combination of traits that the weapon of resistance carries with it. Small daily complaints, negative humor, short-term thinking, and pessimism are all ammunition for this devastating and self-damaging canon, which on the surface may seem like a small handgun — but this resistance should not be underestimated. Instead, you must adopt the Improv Strategy, a powerful vehicle that allows you to fly over the battleground and into a new world rather than remaining and relying on outdated defenses.

When professional actors work in an improvised space, each actor involved has to contribute to a collective flow in order to build a story — off-script and with spontaneity. The only information they have to derive the next line from is the information fed into the group, either by the group members themselves or sometimes from the audience or other off-hand, non-performers.

Improv, the shorthand term used in the acting world, is an art which should not be taken lightheartedly. There are often times in which our favorite lines from well-known films turn out to actually be improv’d lines from actors. (My favorite example being the chilling and unforgettable scene in Taxi Driver, including the line ‘You talkin to me?’, by Robert De Niro. According to the writer, Paul Schrader, the script simply read, “Bickle speaks to himself in the mirror.” Spontaneously fitting in something which felt natural to the character, scene situation and most often, to the mood created on set between the actors — something that writers cannot predict nor find alone. This art is an instant reaction built on the foundations of years of understanding great storytelling and deeply engaging in human interactions.

You must be an improv artist. In life, reality shifts will hurl toward you in surprising and often uncomfortable times and you no matter how sophisticated your strategies may be, acceptance of this shift is the only real strategy you can deploy first. Like an actor, the Improv Strategy requires you to accept what is given to you and move from there. From here, you can dance with change and can even go as far as to dictate the direction in which you will continue to change. Your future reality shifts may be ones that are carefully introduced and are less random in timing.

To reality shifts, you must say “yes.”

For saying “yes” and accepting these changes provides you with adventures. Saying “no” provides you with the sense of security that actually you demanded. However, this sense of security will forever be pushed around and no longer will you be in control of your own story. You will be constantly looking over your shoulder, trying to maintain what little you have, like the paranoid rat protecting his small piece of cheese despite being a few meters away from a cheese factory. Our seemingly polarizing modern society demands that we stand for something. But what you may find yourself standing for is nothing at all. You are, in fact, simply allowing your fear to overthrow any ambition or creative value you really have to give to the world.

Resistance will also lead you to find further changes even more difficult to handle and from here, a slippery slope of difficulty to establish meaningful relationships, building of businesses, creation of art, or inspiration (all which require a deep acceptance of reality shifts) to occur. Acceptance is understanding that the grass really is greener on the other side and that you are by all means allowed to try it out.

In Improv acting, this is known as “blocking” — as you are essentially blocking progression of the scene. Following a previous performer’s line of “what a wonderful hotel we’ve arrived at,” a blocker would say “we haven’t moved anywhere, we’re still on the same stage we were on in the previous scene.” These actors do win the first laughs, but beyond that, they are rewarded with nothing. The instant gratification of having “won” the scene, pales in comparison to creating great art or an impactful scene that would later win a huge laugh or a round of applause.

On TED’s WorkLife Podcast, host and organizational psychologist Adam Grant explore The Daily Show and how its creative writing team is able to produce a show of hilarious news-reactive jokes on a daily basis.

Grant noticed how the room of writers often jumped into a state which allowed them to bounce off each other, a kind of constant fast-flowing interruption that never came across as rude. They were building on each other’s jokes. Much like the best improv actors, these writers were feeding off the information presented to them and accepting these jokes to further develop them and even create a narrative that would later turn into a well-crafted and flowing TV show script. The name of this process is known by psychologists as ‘burstiness’.

Through this process, credit is, unfortunately, something that becomes harder to give to one particular writer. The head writer describes how the writers add their individual fruits to the blender to make a delicious smoothie, however trying to identify which fruits actually define the taste of the smoothie is something that is quite difficult.

Despite this difficulty in giving out direct credit to individual writers, the beauty is that the team act very much like a team. They work toward a common goal of creating one masterful script for Trevor Noah to read during each live taping of The Daily Show. This goal gives all of those involved a powerful drive to develop an unforgettable show each and every single night — the demand for which is extremely high.

Another industry where the stakes are very high is in the world of jazz. Jazz artists are a unique kind of artist. Every artist is demanded to travel around cities and countries in order to find the next spot.

Unlike most other music genres, in jazz, there is a heavy focus on craft. A jazz artist, especially when young, spends less time in studios, writing songs of their own and more time in bars and clubs, playing ‘the greats’. Fortunately, I’ve had the pleasure of personally meeting a lot of jazz artists (frequently visiting great jazz venues in London will help you do the same) and I’ve noticed that every artist I meet is a deep lover of jazz and its culture.

The “spirit” of jazz is very much alive.

Each artist is less concerned to their own fame and more concerned as to how they could develop their skill, become the very best artist to then further add to the culture, that they grew up on and that has treated them with the lifestyle they so passionately throw themselves into.

But why is there so much emphasis on skill development and honing of craft in jazz? To truly understand the answer to this, I urge you to see a live jazz performance in an intimate venue. For Londoners, bars like Bar 48 in Oval or The Crypt in Camberwell prove to be incredible locations for the highest quality of performances (and red wines).

When you witness live jazz, you will see true Improv Strategy at play. Much like the creative writing team working behind The Daily Show, the artists coming together to perform have to rely on this improvised flow in order to create their masterful pieces. This is most definitely the case when the artists playing together have only just met for the first time; something I’ve witnessed many times. The saxophonist will find the perfect place enter the song, play with a few compositions, only to then exit the song perfectly to allow for a drummer solo. Then as the performance ends, the saxophonist and drummer look to each other as the saxophonist awkwardly makes his way over and says ‘sorry, what was your name?’

The means of communication that a jazz artist masters is that of music. The saxophonist may communicate to the drummer that they want the drummer to come in with a solo and in the same sense, the drummer may indicate that it is actually not the correct time to do so.

See jazz, by its very nature, is improvised. A song is never played the same way twice. Each recital gives the saxophonist, pianist, organist, bassist, drummer and guitarist, a new means to play with the limits and extremes of the genre. The written aspect of the song only goes so far. Keen listeners may recognize a classic being played when the instruments are first engaged, but beyond that, there is very little that can be expected.

Jazz artists don’t just accept change, they embrace it. Every song for them — is change. They see reality shifts as an opportunity to test their skill, ability to entertain and deeply hone their craft. Even their lifestyle is one constant reality shift rooting itself deeply into the fabric of the artist’s existence. A bar night location change may reveal itself only hours before the performance. They may find themselves an instrument short — having to call upon an artist to rush over despite them being mid-nap.

The jazz artist doesn’t resist change, they thrive on it.

Carl Jung said: “We cannot change anything until we accept it,” but this acceptance is hard to come by. Most, if they were performing improv on stage, would block and prevent other actors from continuing the scene. If they were writers for The Daily Show, they would hinder the overall performance of the final script. If they were Jazz performers, they would take away the magical element that makes jazz unique and would fail to entertain any listeners.

They are the broken link that prevents any further link, keeping the chain short in length. Without acceptance, no limits will be surpassed and no new discoveries will be made. This is devastating.

The very words we use shape our reality. We live what we say and think. The world around us is manifested by what we utter into it. What may seem like simple, negative humor or shallow resistance, may, in fact, be the catalyst for a far more crippling mindset. One which could prevent great opportunities.

Acceptance is progression. It’s the missing puzzle piece which allows you finish and move onto the next, more interesting and exciting puzzle. Beyond acceptance, the Improv Strategy shows its colors; transforming the beholder’s existence from mere participation to a thriving mastery.

And from here, art can be made.