Life is Improvised: Faking It

Andy Yeoh

Utter Rot & Poppycock (Jan 2019) | PHOTOGRAPHER Lee Pullen

This week the BIT's improvised musical company, This is Your Musical, performed a show about a family facing The Apocalypse, called "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?". Various audience members afterwards described it as "cathartic".

Improv shows – or more specifically, improv audiences – are good metaphorical pinecones of the prevailing cultural weather. Plus, when they open up, cool and interesting things fall out of them and this week's things were dominated by politics. In TIYM's case specifically, the seed of suggestion for our improvised musical was "the feeling three or four interviews after the vote when I suddenly had the horrifying realisation they they were all completely stuck".

"I didn't mean to get you actors into trouble," continued the suggestion-giver from the second row in a plaintive American accent, which wasn't her fault either, I suppose.

"Don't worry", I faked, "we're professionals."

Without wishing to get too much into politics, lots of us have experienced the odd momentary flicker of concern that the people we look to don't really seem to know what they're doing. Whether it's in the halls of political power, or around the family dinner table, when the scales fall from our eyes, we are often caught in horrified amazement.

Degrees of Error present Fairy Tale Ending (Nov 2018) | PHOTOGRAPHER Lee Pullen

But it should come as no surprise really. The ancient Greeks used to conceptualise going into the future as walking backwards down a road; one can only see things as one passes them. In a very real sense, no-one really knows what the future is going to look like, they can only imagine (or extrapolate, which is a bit more scientific).

Ultimately though, when faced with something new, even the most accomplished person has nothing to guide them except the knowledge of what's come before, an assumption that any problem encountered will be like one they've dealt with already and a sincere hope that they haven't backed themselves into a dead end.

Beyond that, we're all just winging it and, deep down inside, we all know it.

We feel it in us. If there's something in your day-to-day job that you feel distinctly under-unqualified for, if you predominately pick up skills from Youtube, and if there's a little part of you holding your breath for the sudden, damning, revealing cry of "you don't know what you're DOING!!" then you too are familiar with imposter syndrome.

Ahh yes, it's a distinctly human feeling we all share. So why should the people who are delivering the world's most luxurious musical festival or who happen to be looking after the nuclear weapons this year be any different? In fact, looking around at the current state of the world, one could make a strong argument that absolute certainty is the dead giveaway of highly egregious decision makers.

For an improviser, faking it can be both a blessing and a curse.

It is possible, on stage, for the improviser who proudly declares that there is a tiny woman in his hat and he will coax her out to derive a tremendous amount of joy in faking it.

In this sense, faking it goes hand in hand with commitment and the idea that if you are following your joy and have discovered something you love, go hard or go home. Once you committing to the idea that someone is living in your hat you can have fun exploring that idea and the delightful ways of expressing it. Bonus: Committing to the fake makes it easier for your fellow performers to support you. Double bonus: Someone doing something they are clearly enjoying with total commitment is incredibly watchable. Even if the imaginary gnome doesn't emerge, you'll have tried your best and we'll sympathise, because as an audience we wanted there to really be a wish granting fairy queen hidden in your bonnet. We will love feeling sorry for the character.

What we don't want is to feel sorry for the actor.

If we do, something has gone wrong and faking it takes on a different meaning altogether. Continuing to do an activity you are not enjoying because you feel compelled in some way (one of the possible consequences of pimping) is a miserable affair that delights no-one. The improviser may attempt to re-discover the joy, but this might not be possible. The other alternative is then to stop. Only the improviser can make that call for herself, but both are legitimate options and I very much agree with Katy Schutte, that this should be made clearer to improvisers who are sometimes merely, mistakenly told that they must always say Yes.

The Improvised Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Jan 2019) | PHOTOGRAPHER Lee Pullen

Being adaptable is a fundamental improv skill, after all. To be adaptable, the improviser must be aware when something isn't working out the way they hoped. Rather than becoming fixated on the results or an idealised image you want to be true, impenetrable and stagnant, it would be better to pause and reconnect with what actually is true.

If you can admit to reality and be affected by it, you are not only more flexible, you also make better decisions based on reality. The great improviser nurtures the art of letting go of the fake as much as committing to it. After all, who cares? You're only faking it. We all are.

Perhaps that goes some way toward explaining the horror that we feel when we look at someone who is a) faking it, b) clearly incredibly miserable and – worst of all – c) refusing to acknowledge that there's a problem. Perhaps we find it an uncomfortable reminder of that time when we took on a little bit too much than was good for us, yet felt that we had to continue on our over-burdened way, or we remember that relationship that should really have ended sooner.

That kind of faking it can be selfish as hell… and at that point it really is half as much trouble to go.

Andy's drop-in class, The Improv Actor's Clinic, runs Tuesdays 7:00-9:30pm at the Bristol Improv Theatre. For more improv classes and workshops, see our Courses Page.