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Thinking 'bout: Improvement



"Ain't about what's waiting on the other side. It's the climb."

-- Miley Cyrus

One day, when I was a high school theater teacher, I was covering a class for a science teacher. They were scheduled to watch a movie, so easy enough to cover the class. They were set to watch the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey with Neil deGrasse Tyson. In the episode, they mention an idea from Lucretius, which is as follows:

"Lucretius asked the reader to imagine standing at the edge of the universe and shooting an arrow outward. If the arrow keeps going, then clearly, the universe extends beyond what you thought was the edge. But if the arrow doesn't keep going say it hits a wall then that wall must lie beyond what you thought was the edge of the universe. Now if you stand on that wall and shoot another arrow, there are only the same two possible outcomes it either flies forever out into space, or it hits some boundary where you can stand and shoot yet another arrow."

The quote is talking about our search for knowledge in the universe- the general idea being that we should continue a line of questioning until we reach its barrier (the wall). Once we do, we climb that wall and continue to question until forever, or a new wall is found.

I love this idea not only for scientific discovery, but for creative discovery, too. The idea that we are standing on a giant staircase of our creative ability, shooting arrows into the void. When we find a wall, we can climb that wall, and discover new limits.

In the past, I have had directors say to me in the past that they could see I was close to a breakthrough- I just needed to keep "chipping away." I'd say the same things to my students, because it's true. Sometimes, you just have to keep working; nothing anyone can say will help you realize what you need to discover before you'll discover it.

But "breakthrough"? I don't know about that. All I can think of is Andy from The Shawshank Redemption slowly digging through a wall with a spoon. And even after he got through that wall, he had to wade through a bunch of sh*t to actually get out of a prison.

Ok, so maybe sometimes "breakthrough" feels like an apt analogy for the creative process.

But I think shooting an arrow and climbing sounds a lot more fun and inspiring. For me, it's much more motivational to think about "getting good" like that. I also think it's much more playful. You imagine a little archer on an oversize staircase. Adorable!

So, here's how I like to look at the idea of "breakthroughs."

1. Shoot some arrows. Play around with whatever you're doing: acting, improv, art, music, whatever. Try lots of stuff. Shoot arrows real bad. Shoot some good ones. Then, when one sticks to a wall, climb that wall.

2. Climbing is exciting. You're going to get to a whole new place and then shoot some more arrows! But then, climbing sucks. Really sucks. It's tiring. You don't even remember the fun of shooting arrows anymore. But you know people are shooting more arrows up there. You can hear them. So, keep climbing.

And when you reach the "top," when you're shooting arrows way better than when you start, revel in that. And when an arrow sticks in a wall, climb.

Or don't. That's a perfectly acceptable answer. If you're perfectly happy playing on the level you're on, you don't have to climb. And if you're climbing and you're tired, take a break. Climb later. The giant staircase isn't going anywhere.

It's easy to stress about your output in a creative pursuit. It's easy to question if you've got "it" or not, or wonder if you'll ever be as good as "x." It's also pretty easy to just play around, or seek out coaches, tutorials, and teachers to help you climb. It's your choice.

So, I've been thinking about improvement...

You can see yourself as a prisoner in your art, trapped on your current level, slowly scraping at the wall with a spoon until you "breakthrough."

Or, you can see yourself as some metaphorical archer, having a blast shooting some arrows and deciding whether or not to climb a giant staircase.

So, you're choice: 1995 Best Picture Shawshank Redemption, or renowned children's story Jack and the Beanstalk.

If you're into the blog, check out my podcast with Kerri Shannon, Gettin' Biggie with It. We interview a new member of the Baltimore Improv Group every Thursday! Get it where you get your podcasts!


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