Lessons from improvisation and storytelling

I’m an introvert, and terrible at expressing myself. But I’ve always wanted to communicate with people and be understood. It’s like there’s a beautiful song I wish to sing, but I don’t have a voice and I can’t find the words.

To get better at self-expression, I attended a workshop, “Improvising stories – before creation comes imagination!”

I was amazed! Just a 3-hour workshop awoke in me the joy of expression. I was surprised that even a stiff and shy person like me could improvise and tell a story in front of an audience, just like that!

And as a life coach, I noticed that many of the principles in improvisation are just like life itself.

Here are four lessons I’ve learned from improvising, storytelling, and coaching:

Be the lead character

Each story has to have a lead character. And what defines a lead character? The goal, the motive. A lead character must want something. Not only must he want something, he must have a reason for wanting it.

For example, Rosie wants to get married… because her parents keep pressuring her to get hitched. Or Jimmy wants to write a story… so he can finally be the hero.

In our own lives, we must also want something, and there must be a reason we want it. If not, we’re not the main characters in our own lives.

Do we know what we want, and why we want it?

If we do not know what we want, we become victims to external forces, reacting erratically to any carrots or sticks placed in front of us. If we do not set a direction for ourselves, we end up becoming pawns in other people’s drama.

With or without us knowing, we already want something. There are of course obvious things people want – money, relationships, family, and so on. But what’s interesting is what drives those wants. Is it safety? Acceptance? Love? Validation? Power? Freedom? Expression?

If we are aware of what drives us, we can gain control over it. If we do not know what we want, life will seem to be a random series of events, with us reacting reflexively to whatever conditions and situations we find ourselves in.

To use an analogy, we are all boats adrift on the sea of life. If we know what we want, we can steer our ships in the right direction. If we do not know what we want, we let the currents take us wherever they may. In the first case, we have a better chance getting there. In the second case, we have next to no chance of getting there.

Give yourself permission

Not everybody gets to perform their story. Each time there was an opportunity to improvise, the workshop leader would ask for a volunteer. There was a two-second window in which a participant could choose to volunteer, or not.

I realised how this is much like life, where we can either choose to get involved, or choose to remain in the background.

Sometimes we feel in life that we are waiting for the skies to part, for a beam of light to shine directly upon us, before we choose ourselves. Without external prompting, our first instinct is to discount ourselves, thinking that we are not worthy or that we are not good enough.

I recalled a brief interaction I had with a relative. We were both sitting at the dining table. The TV was on, and she was watching while I was eating.

She asked me, “Can I change the channel?”

I said, “No.”

She asked again, “Can I change the channel?”

I said, “No.”

She changed the channel anyway. Truth is, I didn’t really care what we watched. I just wanted to show her that she already knew what she wanted and was going to do it anyway. She might as well just have done it without asking for permission first.

In the end, we’re the only ones that can give ourselves permission to do what we want, to be whoever we want to be.

Each person is beautiful just as they are

As each volunteer took the stage to tell their story, I was struck by how much of his/her personality came through in the story. The wide-eyed girl looking for prince charming told a romantic story about a deep love connection. The idealist seeking self-acceptance told a story about how being who you are was good enough. The mother with a heavy load told a story of how life was full of burdens.

As I watched each person go on stage, nervous and vulnerable, earnestly sharing themselves with the class, I was deeply touched. I was mesmerised by their authenticity and courage in expressing themselves honestly.

I realised, there is no good story or bad story, right story or wrong story. When a person bares themselves in front of you, expressing themselves truthfully, there is no other response but deep gratitude and appreciation.

Each of us, in living our lives, are also telling the stories of ourselves. We come through in how we do things, the way we live, our moment to moment choices. The more we connect to and express our emotions, the more we live a beautiful life.

You, with all your struggles and insecurities and doubts, all your anger and sadness and fear, all your hopes and dreams and desires, are beautiful just as you are.

Life is a revelation

Our facilitator told us not to think ahead during improvisation. Don’t be thinking of an outcome, just use your intuition. If you think ahead, you won’t be in the moment. Trust yourself and let the story come to you.

Many times in life, we feel small and helpless and insignificant. There’s a great big universe out there, unknown forces that influence us, corporations and structures and political systems that are beyond our grasp. Even though we are like little specks of dust, we try to think ahead. We try to control our environment and whatever happens to us.

How do we navigate ourselves amid the unfathomable complexity of the universe?

From moment to moment, we act. We get a reaction from the universe. In the gap between expectation and reality, the truth is being revealed.

Here’s an analogy. Put two chemicals together, say sodium and water. There’s only one possible outcome – the formation of sodium hydroxide and hydrogen gas.

For someone who did not understand chemistry, that would be a surprise.

In life, we don’t know the mechanics behind every encounter and reaction. Life seems random because we are unaware of the laws that govern us. Most times, we only see our perspective (i.e. we are sodium, and we don’t know which chemicals we’re going to react with. But unlike sodium, we can change ourselves).

If we knew all the mechanics and all the factors, we would succeed all the time at everything we did.

Let’s say there is a 5/10 guy. He wants a girl, but the girl is only willing to accept an 8/10 guy. The guy doesn’t know that, so he asks the girl out. The girl says no. Could there have been any other outcome?

So in each moment as we live, the universe is constantly reacting to us, giving us feedback. When we succeed and can constantly create a desired outcome, we have mastery over the mechanics. When we try something new and we don’t succeed, that’s the universe giving us feedback, revealing itself to us.

We’re engaged in an eternal dance with the universe. Life is a great revelation, constantly unfolding.

If we stick within our comfort zones, where we already know what the outcome will be, then we’re just safe. Nothing really unfolds. We are living in predictable patterns.

But if we endeavour for something greater, if we reach for more, and we give it our best shot, that’s when the universe reveals itself to us.

Life is an adventure. Each time we step into the unknown, we encounter more and more of life.

Want to tell stories too?

Ana Sousa Gavin, the storytelling coach who conducted the workshop, also hosts monthly sessions at Bukit Panjang Public Library. Join the Facebook group, Organic Storytellers, to find out more.

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