My hugs are awkward. They are a perfunctory gesture mandated by social etiquette and colder than day old oatmeal. They are short where they should be long, rigid instead of soft and they end as abruptly as they begin. They have the soothing qualities of a traffic cop and just as much sex appeal. When finished, I don’t even look back and I consider by duty done. Hugs are a profound weakness of mine.
I would never had considered changing the way I hug – or lack there of- if the director of my new TV project wouldn’t have noticed. After a situation where I needed to hug someone at the end of the show he stopped and said, “Are you kidding me with that? Does anyone in your life believe your hugs?” Then he suggested I take improvisation lessons.
Returning to El Paso I made one phone call to the only friend I know who has experience in acting. He called several people and found an improv teacher named David who agreed to teach me.
Nervous I entered David’s home and the first thing I notice are his eyes, which are brown, but not like chocolate, or honey, or chestnuts. His eyes are the color of forest mushrooms, earthen brown in a way that brings to mind old sepia photographs. They could melt you with their facade of chocolate, but then they would crush you with their under-layer of earth and soil.
I am pleased to see his silver hair and he relieved to feel he has that teacher/dad vibe. He has a face like some guy you’d ask for directions in the street, non-threatening but handsome. In a suit he could be a news anchor, tall, clean cut but with a loveable smile that is only ever removed from his features when he needs to be serious. His movements are unhurried, choreographed and deliberate. His voice is deep.
Over the course of a several lessons in a couple of months I appreciate the way David counts my opinion and listens to what I have to say. For the most part I understand what is going on with the structure of improv and periodically he stops to address me directly, to explain the next exercise and what its purpose is. It was oddly comforting to be treated so much like a child, yet all along I feel in control, like all I have to do is whisper “stop” and he will.
I thought improv was just a way to make jokes, or sophisticated guidelines for brainstorming. But something in the language of our culture communicates something grander. And I began to notice that improv was something much deeper. I instinctually know that I am being asked to be fundamentally open-minded, to be brave, to be adventurous.
Improv is not about memorizing a script and performing a scene it’s about showing up and being more of yourself. Those who learn to paint like Da Vinci imitate a master; yet a long as their own inner mastery remains unknown, they are imposters. They may grow by following the brushstrokes of an original yet only become themselves by grasping their own originality. The great teachers and artists can indicate genuine paths to follow; yet following them can only take us so far. In order to emulate a saint or a teacher those who follow must eventually take their own lead and make their own footsteps.
We may enter paths where others have found meaning and even transcended; that’s a worthy way to begin a quest. But, in order to answer the question of our own lives we must risk taking our own steps. The only genuine safety in this world comes from risking oneself completely in order to become oneself more fully.
Improv demands that you show up, jump in, and go deep. After one especially charged emotional exchange I sat with the devastating emotions I was feeling and cried. And cried. And cried.
As I was leaving, David walked up to me slowly, wrapping both arms around my shoulders and hugged me. I felt my body press into to his and I sank into the warmth of his body, appreciative of the simple gesture, which made me feel as if my own father had his arms around me. I could feel the world around me melt away. His hug made the room warmer somehow, and the future seemed less bleak. It was pure. Unselfish. Undemanding. Free.
Improv has made me question every promise I ever made to myself. It made me open up when I didn’t want to let myself in. It helped me to breathe when I didn’t want to anymore and it helped me see that it’s okay to feel. And so often there are no words for the emotions we are experiencing. So we hug. Deeply.
They say that sometimes your biggest strengths are also your biggest weaknesses.
But sometimes it’s your weaknesses that become your greatest strengths.