January 2017, and I’m fifty-one years old and by all accounts in the middle of a full-blown, multi-dimensional mid-life crisis. I think I need to stop thinking about it; instead I need to get off my ass and out the door, and yes – out of my head. For most of the year before, my friend Charlie has been sending me a stream of information and invitations about improv classes with Imprology, run by his teacher Remy. I have been eyeing this information up, subconsciously, interested, and yet a little wary. I’d tried an improv class once, a few years back, a day with a friend who also teaches it, and I had spent that day feeling as if I’d lost my (very loud) everyday voice and my (very active and much used) imagination. I had encountered a mild but palpable ‘stuck’ feeling, all day. Concrete legs. I was amazed at how many of the others in the group were so much quicker and agile in their thinking and associations, and ideas. Not me. I was slow and blocked. Strange, because I make up dialogue and stories for a living. I’ve written millions of words which have accounted for several novels; I write all the time and have done for most of my life. But the page is one thing and the stage is another thing altogether. Even so, it’s January, the month of new resolutions and new beginnings, and so I think fuck it, sign up.
I joined a beginner’s class with Imprology, taught by Remy Bertrand. The classes were early Tuesday nights at a studio new Warren Street. Very quickly, as in, immediately, it happened – I forgot myself. Remy’s classes are well devised; they can charm and entrap almost anyone, even a middle-aged author in crisis. There’s no time to think. First, we were asked to settle down and breathe. Next, we were thrown straight into games and the games are fun and absorbing and even the most self-conscious of us are provoked into action and, yes, dear reader, within minutes we were all out of our heads. The games are short and mostly done in pairs. Sometimes the games grow into three or fours or groups of eight. We were asked to partner up multiple times. I felt an urge to bond with just one other and the urge to hide, but there just wasn’t time to dwell on these urges. Play the games or be left out. The first hour of the classes is just that: games to elasticate the spirit, to stimulate the imagination, provoke curiosity, to think outside the box and to leave self behind. For example, we played a game called “Let’s” which is all about playing like kids, with the prompt “Let’s” being an invitation to play anything, the kind of thing we all said as kids – “Let’s stick a conker up our nose, etc.” This game is fun in twos and also fun when the whole class is doing it and someone shouts, “Let’s all be a fish!” and fifteen adults hit the ground and swim around on our stomachs.
There are lots of games. In a group, we play catch a half full bottle of water, we jump in the air and ‘zap’ each other, we stand in a circle and shout ‘fish, banana, horse’, a game of riddles. We play word games, hand games, games with no meaning whatsoever. Before I know it, an hour had flown. My spirits had lifted. I was happy. The edgy, resistant feeling, which I’d carried with me on the way to class had vanished. When chatting to others in the class, I found many of them felt the same, the adult fear of failure, of not being good enough, quick enough, funny enough or just not being able to improvise enough. Many of us felt edgy and came to the classes anyway. I think I knew this edgy feeling was what I was after or interested in, edge, the margin, or the sharp part of the margin, where you might fall. Every human is capable of art in this edge space, or ingenuity, or feral behaviour. In the edge, we can be marvelous, spontaneous, surprise ourselves and even entertain others. I think I may have lost my edge some time back, my braveness. While writing this article, I looked on the Imprology website and I found this:
“Failing is acknowledged as a sign of genuine risk-taking. Free from the need to appear bright and original, participants can test new ways to support and project themselves and interact with others in a playful and forgiving atmosphere.”
Yes. I agree, I felt I was taking a risk and that is a fresh feeling, a good feeling mid-life. The classes are not just games. Each two hour session was thought through and themed; and so there was a class all about silence, one about time, one about playfulness and then the edgiest of all, a class about status.
Top dog, underdog, we paired up and played roles. I found this nerve-wracking: how do I disappear completely and not play the part of who I think I am, myself – Roffey, the Invincible. I am a Caribbean woman; we don’t even think along the lines of who might be an underdog. Caribbean people are all alpha and all top dog and if you hadn’t heard that ‘God is a Trini’, you have now. I had encountered similar games in my tantra workshops during my 40s, the idea of practicing ‘saying no’ and meaning it. To a person from a hot country, this is ludicrous. But British people are extremely codified in their class system and also they are taught, from birth, to restrain themselves, to turn themselves down, to never show off and claim top dog status. And so I played underdog and pretended I wasn’t an alpha by blood and kinship. It sort of worked, until I was part of a group of eight and we were asked to play the “Let’s” game as a means of leadership. Someone shouted: “Let’s all make sandcastles,” and so we did. Within seconds, I’d shouted “Let’s all jump on them and smash them down!” I can’t remember too much after that, only that there was utter chaos and I found myself tearing the socks off a male class member and throwing them away. The chaos seemed to be mostly due to me, and the chaos is something I know well and have started around me many times. I had managed to get the whole group to not play the game, but to do something else and I’m still not quite sure what. I cringed in bed for three nights after that, just thinking about it.
What some of us noticed is that improv classes have a kind of cross-over effect. One person said he felt he was using things he learnt in class – in life. I nodded, especially after l’affaire sandcastle. I realised it had been years since I’d felt so exposed and at the same time elated. Though this isn’t the point of improv classes at all, they are also insightful into human behaviour and mirror back to us who we are or who we can be, better than any therapy classes. They are fun and inspire true creative thinking and they also reveal ‘deep character’, as we writers might say. There’s no cover. When there’s no time to think, the real you comes forward in all its glory and it thorns.
The second hour of class is dedicated to sketches and using masks. Again, as a Trinidadian, I’m very familiar with masks, with masking up, and the concept of shape-shifting and playing masquerade. Our carnival is one of the best in the world, born from a tradition of masking up in order to take the piss out of the ruling classes. Even so, there is lots to learn and think about. Remy brought some theory to the second half of the classes. He had lots of very helpful information to impart, especially to us beginners. There were two types of mask, a large white alien type ‘larval’ mask with no mouth. Putting this mask on transformed the player into something so different it was unnerving to watch. Remy explained that most people new to improv find it hard to claim their space on stage and to remain still. He explained that most of us wanted to move around, flail our hands, make action happen. He encouraged us to do as little as possible, to see what kind of impact ‘doing nothing’ had on the audience. He explained that doing nothing, or not much, with intention, can be fascinating to watch.
Most of us had a go with the masks. Even so, it was clear, even in our class, there were a handful of natural mask players and extroverts. Again and again, the same people got up and the same people watched. I’m a natural extrovert and yet I found it hard to know which camp I was in. I’m quick thinking and quick witted – or so I like to think – but there and then – was I? No. Again, like the day of improv years ago, I felt slow. Too guarded, too thoughtful? Too in my head? Or was I also a little chicken shit? Something held me back, and yet also there was that desire to find my edge, be in it. I forced myself only once to ‘play mas’, or that’s how my Trini self thought. There were three of us, the less plucky types, and our short time together, in half masks, in a pretend art gallery, was messy and lacked a narrative to hang anything on, not one of us came up with anything good and so our sketch quietly died.
“It was like bad sex,” I said to Remy later, when we had taken our masks off and had done a mini-feedback session. “There was no chemistry.” Even though Remy had said many times, “use your partner”, or go to your partner for the action, and for dialogue, for anything, we had all forgotten that on stage and clammed up. Never mind. The death was minor and it was a learning experience. I felt pleased I’d had a go. Later, I realised it wasn’t a death at all, quite the opposite: it was the beginning of something. You see, being middle aged means you know, just know how things go when you practice a little and keep having a go. That’s how books are written, or at least, that’s how I write my books.
The course was seven weeks long and I already miss it. When you are in a full-blown multi-dimensional mid-life crisis there is some kind of half death happening, or so you feel, the death of learning and of newness. You are experienced and you have these experiences for company. I’d been worried the learning and the experiences and the risk taking had dried up. While I am still writing books, and still doing all sorts of good things and enjoying the pleasure of life long friends and relationships, I’d slowed down and there had been a sense of ‘nothing new’ to discover. For a creative person, this is the eye of the crisis, mid life, the well drying up. Or sometimes it does, for a brief time.
In short, I loved doing these improv classes. I also found this on the Imprology website.
“First we play to win.
Then we play to lose.
Then we play to play.”
Yeeha. The classes roll on and I will definitely sign up again and challenge myself again because I miss the edge I once had. The classes were fun because they are also well designed. Remy has lots and lots and lots of ideas to throw at us and also lots of experience. In fact, I’d say a key part of why these classes were so much fun came down to Remy and his assistant Pixie. Remy Bertrand is French with a back ground in playback theatre and much else; actually, it’s not hard to see he is an improv genius. Think a touch of Bill Murray and more than a touch of Ohad Naharin, plus a French insouciance mixed with a generosity of spirit. Pixie, blue haired and blue eyed and beautiful is half Prospero’s Ariel, half Peter Pan. They are a great team and make the classes fun and safe and more or less win win. Improv classes got me through a cold winter and they got me learning again. They got me taking risks, too. Mostly, they got me out of my head.
Imprology classes can be found at www.imprology.com